In the scenario proposed in this question, the Thirteen Colonies choose not to unite. Sure they work together, but not as a United Nation, as a coalition of Independent Nation States; all working together, but all technically independent of each other.

As much fun as this scenario is, I cannot think of a realistic reason for it to occur. Why would the Thirteen Colonies choose to be allied, individual nation states instead of being one united country?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Prior to the Civil War, isn't that basically what the United States were? Maybe you should be a bit more specific about what you mean by "technically independent". Do you mean no federal government of any sort? $\endgroup$
    – Ajedi32
    Sep 15, 2016 at 19:36

5 Answers 5


They might chose to remain apart because the colonies did not really have that much in common in the first place. While all the colonists spoke English, and the vast majority of the residents at that point (~1790) were of English or Scottish origin, the economies of the states were dependent on different things.

Characteristics of the Colonies

New England's colonies were based on fishing, whaling, shipbuilding, and shipping. They were heavily involved with the non-English colonies in the Carribean, as shippers of food to the plantations there and processors of molasses (into rum). There were basically no slaves in New England (less than 4,000, about 3/4 of them in Connecticut). The population of New England in 1790 was just over 1 million.

The middle colonies (NY, NJ, PA, DE, and MD) were sources of the food that the New Englanders traded, and also furs. Furs were the primary product of the interior United States and they flowed through Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, or down the Hudson to New York. There were some slaves in the Middle States; about 150,000, 2/3 of them in Maryland. Maryland is often considered a slave state, but it is the only 'traditional' slave state whose slave population dropped after 1790. Whereas the number of slaves in the US tripled between 1790 and 1860, it dropped by 10% in Maryland as the state shifted away from the plantation economy and Baltimore came to more closely resemble Philadelphia as a manufacturing and shipping hub. The free population of the middle states was 1.2 million.

The South sold cotton, tobacco, and indigo. Since the south's trade was more lucrative and population of free whites was MUCH smaller, the south had no incentive to start manufacturing, whereas Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had manufacturing economies as advanced as anywhere outside England, even as early as 1800. Slaves were of course plentiful in the south, making up close to half the population. The free population of the south was about 900,000.

Economic Considerations

Economy pulled the country in different directions.

The South would have wanted to maintain ties with England, since that was the richest country in the world and the primary customer for southern cotton and also indigo.

New England, on the other hand was basically in competition with the British shipping and shipbuilding industries. The New England colonies would have been geopolitically advantaged by an alliance with the Spanish colonies in the new world, a huge market for New England manufactures and shipping. At this time, Spain had little manufacturing and a small merchant navy.

The middle colonies would have been been somewhere in the middle (lol?) not being especially advantaged or disadvantaged by association with England. As the only net food producers of the New World, they would benefit most from the growth of other colonial empires that they could feed (perishable food being difficult to ship across the Atlantic).

Economic difference caused a potential for separation between the states. The impetus for separation could be one of the below:

The Elephant in the Room

This was of course slavery, the issue which came the closest to actually splitting the nation. In addition to the actual civil war, there were tensions around the 3/5 Clause of the Constitution, the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, the aftermath of the Mexican-American war, etc. Had the issue gone to war during, say, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, its entirely possible, the New England, Middle, and Southern sections of the country would have gone their own way. This is especially true since the New Englanders voted differently from the rest of the nation in the 1820s. New England provided 31 of 34 dissenting electoral votes against James Madison in 1816, and the only dissenting vote in 1820. NE voted 51 of 51 for John Quincy Adams while the rest of country voted 30 of 210 for him in 1824. In 1828, NE went 50/51 for JQA, and the rest of the country 33 of 210.


The other event that could have split the nation was ratification of the Constitution. It was a heroic effort on the part of many of the founding fathers to convince state legislatures to ratify. As it was, two of the original 13 states (North Carolina, and Rhode Island) had not even ratified the Constitution by the time George Washington too his initial oath of office. Many of the largest states,had close votes: 187-168 in MA, 89-79 in VA, 30-27 in NY. Rhode Island rejected the constitution in a referendum, and North Carolina's legislature voted once against ratifying before coming around later. Incidentally, that means that neither state nor NY voted in the first presidential election. Imagine if you weren't allowed to vote and then Hillary or Trump (pick who you hate more) became president!

In any case, if ratification was a close call in many places, and could have failed. In that case, it is not at all clear what would have happened, but three regional nations, or 13 individual nations are both possibilities.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's interesting that the the UK only let go of the 13 colonies, and none on the rest of the territory and it doesn't seem like there is any fight to acquire that territory. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 15, 2016 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ Well the UK ceded all land east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence to the US in the Treaty of Paris in 1787. So there was a fight to acquire that territory, and it was the Revolutionary War. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Sep 15, 2016 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ I meant canada ^.^ but I had forgot about all that land too. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 15, 2016 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ It's interesting that John Quincy Adams apparently ran and got so many votes in 1924 and 1928, so long after his death. :) $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2016 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @JoelHarmon If you think that President son of President was scary, wait till you see George W Bush competing in the 2100 and 2104 elections! Fixed. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Sep 16, 2016 at 11:50

Simple answer is that the Articles of Confederation were a pretty big failure which could have lead to the "US" to devolved into 13 sovereign states, rather than what did happen (the writing of the Constitution and strengthening federal power), however when British forces attack in 1812 they would need to "unite" as an alliance to ward of the UK which is another point of a possible Federalization, but it is more likely to establish a long term International alliance between the 13 states rather than a federated government due to the states would have stabilized by this point and there would be much greater push back against a stronger union since they'd have already seen it fail once. This also would be on the tail end of the French Revolution. Many of the founders of the US likely would have seen that and a good number of them would have to question how lucky they were that the results were as they were and wouldn't want to risk pushing more political reform that could end worse.

This obviously changes history a bit like, no war with Canada and the Civil War never happens, but alliances would change and the North would block the South from searching for slaves in its territory at some point, especially with the South growing military power... Slavery would still be abolished by the early 1900s and racial tensions wouldn't be as high... Also Southern cities might be more powerful than they are today.

The Louisiana Purchase wouldn't happen, which might have causes another state to form there and possibly war with the 13 states. The US wouldn't have been able to back the Allies side in WWI or WWII which might have lead to a German and Japanese victory... California, Texas, Hawaii would all likely be their own countries, bigger, with other smaller countries around them probably. Alaska might have been bought by Canada. Also the moon landing would likely not have happened and I think the Space age would have been pushed back a few decades. Same with all our current technology without the US pushing for and having the resources to do these things. Also you have a lot of oppressed people throughout Europe that would likely overthrow Germany eventually and China would never stop trying to rebel against Japan so that area would likely be a chaotic area similar to Africa.

Without all the superpower rising up and all the war in other countries far away the nations that are the US and Canada currently would likely be still the most peaceful area on Earth, but tensions would rise and there'd be minor skirmishes, but ultimately there'd be no reason to unite so under anything other than maybe a looser confederation than the Articles of Confederation did, more in line with a UN or Nato.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Most of this is about the future of a loose alliance of states, which isn't what the question is asking for. Could you add some detail about why a failed Articles of Confederation would cause this? $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Sep 15, 2016 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Well it's one of the possible outcomes of a failed AoC, the other is what we have, the federal constitution. The reason to go into the future is to explain why it wouldn't happen later. The states would have stabilized by 1812 and after 1900s the world would be at war with each other leaving the Americas alone mostly... the biggest threat to this is the threat from whatever happens with Luisiana which could cause the nations to unite, but doubtful. And the reason the failure of the AoC causes this is simply and All in or all out thing, we went all in, if you go all out it leads to what i said. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 15, 2016 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Since the French Revolution was inspired by the US, maybe that would have been different too if the Constitution of 1887 didn’t happen. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 16, 2016 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz The French Revolution was more the result of France's suffering from the severe adversity caused by its sovereign debt incurred in the Anglo-French War. Britain had its own sovereign debt too from the same war. That's why they thought the colonies should help pay it off. After all, Britain had protected the American colonies and Canada from the French. The UK war debt incurred was bigger than the war debt from either WW1 or WW2. Not insignificant, at all. Basically it was war debt that triggered both revolutions. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Sep 16, 2016 at 5:52

Look up real history: The United States in 1776 was indeed a federation of independant states (“state” is like kingdom but not specific to monarchy; different from the meaning assumed today as a synonym for provence).

The Constitution created a central government, 11 years later!

The Wikipedia page gives a good overview. Look at what happened: they planned a meeting for the stated purpose of ammending the Articles, but took matters in their own hands and wrote an entirely new government, and then had to convince everyone to switch to it!

Why were they driven to that? Maybe they weren’t so driven in the alternate history, and a few significant ammendments would be sufficient to address the problems, or the same problems were not even present due to diplomacy and events prior to getting to that point.

Maybe the founders had ideas but couldn’t agree on a federal government so didn’t persue it but revised the Articles instead as they were supposed to. Maybe one particular person was present and made them do the job they were meant to do and not waste time on a more ambitious project; work on that after we ship our deliverables, as a good manager will do; but that ended up working well enough and a whole new government did not gain traction.

Maybe Jefferson had died early, or wasn’t present for some other reason.

So it’s the fact that we did create a Federal Union that is extrodinary and if anything had gone differently it would not have happened that way.

Now even with a full Republic having feneral authority, states rights were a big deal and it wasn’t until WWⅡ that the US became such a strong single federal entity. It could have gone differently with events weakening the central-ness, even without changing the fact of the Union.

Again, look at the intracacies of history to get a much more varied story than you might know or suppose today.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There is lore surrounding Washington about how he got lucky, never being hit by gun fire even though he was in those situations he should have been. It wouldn't be an extraordinary thing to just say he was actually shot. Without him, even though he wasn't a great intellectual or military man, his presence was key to many things as were his actions in setting precedents. You remove him from history earlier and you can easily see even if they could get the constitution written and such, the nation could have still fallen apart without him. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 16, 2016 at 2:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There could be a series of stories where each one tells the history where a different person was missing. Washington and Jefferson are easy, but could find (or make up) others with pivitol roles. Framing story of exploring timelines around a junction where there are lots of major branches rather than convergence with resistence to change even when details vary. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 16, 2016 at 5:32

More of a comment than an answer, but as many of the posters upthread noted, The initial "Articles of Confederation" were based on the premise that each colony was a sovereign State, and the correct terminology for the nation prior to the Civil War was "These United States".

The American Creed also outlines this historical basis:

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.

And historically, some of these early States really did take the idea of Sovereignty to the limit; the "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1791 was a direct challenge to the idea of "These United States" being a unitary nation, and the events leading up to the American Civil War were based on the principle of "States Rights" and how much authority the central government in Washington had over the States. Slavery was the proximate cause, since it was also an emotionally charged and easily understandable issue, but the idea that Washington could restrict the spread of slavery to the new territories was the trigger for many of the Confederate states, since they could collectively see the end of their power and influence as they became outnumbered in the expanding Union.

The CSA is probably a good forecast of how a disunited States under the Articles of Confederation would have evolved. Even under the existential threat of military conquest, the various States that made up the CSA never operated in a unified manner. One could suggest that the squabbling States of the original Articles of Confederation would have been unable to drive out Spain or France from North America, and the British would have been able to create a sort of counter nation on the West Coast, retaining the Oregon Territories and joining them to British Columbia, and expanding north to Russian Alaska and south the Spanish California. France still retained notional rights to the Louisiana Territories, and the interior may well have been left to the plains Indians.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually the trigger for the Civil War was expressly the election of Abraham Lincoln, and it literally had nothing to do with slaves. The slaves were freed in the North as PR thing to mess with Southern armies, but Lincoln was hated by everyone. He was elected by the Northern states purposefully voting in Lincoln to annoy the South which just proved to the South that it literally had no power in the government and thus no reason to remain a part of the government under the same reasons for why that states all rebelled in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 16, 2016 at 1:55
  • $\begingroup$ More on the slave thing. The south agreed on the slave thing too btw. Just like the discovery of America wasn't due to the idea that the earth was fla vs round, the actual argument was based on size, for slavery the issue was that the North was demanding immediate freeing of the slaves while the South pointed out that there would be many issues with freeing the slaves that have to be solved for proper integration (similar to the modern immigration problem) and it would take time to build these institutions. Ultimately the South was pretty much in the right top to bottom. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 16, 2016 at 2:00
  • $\begingroup$ You might want to read "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin before you lay out judgments of Lincoln. He was a very skilled politician trying to juggle far too many opposing interests, ultimately some viewpoints were simply irreconcilable. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 16, 2016 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not laying out judgements about Lincoln. I am relating the fact that everyone hated him. Whether he was good president or not I didn't say at all. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 16, 2016 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Durakken, Regarding your first comment, if you read the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln very expressly DID NOT free the slaves in the Union, only the Confederacy (and, even more expressly, only those parts of the Confederacy that had not already been captured (like certain parts of Norfolk)). So yes, it was a PR move, but not the way you think. $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Feb 24, 2019 at 16:13

Durakken suggests that the Articles of Confederation basically failed (which it did). kingledion suggests that differences in manufacturing base and preferred trading partners and attitudes on slavery and loyalty would have kept the colonies apart. Those are both great ideas.

Perhaps another option would be if England did not force the colonies to unite in the first place. The Seven Years War (or more to the point: the "French and Indian War") began when England decided to stop French expansion in the inland areas. Ben Franklin had the bright idea that maybe the colonies should create a unified governance for defense of the 13 colonies, thus proposing his Albany Plan and calling for the Albany Congress of 1754 (twenty years before the first Continental Congress).

Maybe, just possibly, if England had decided to wage a Continental war (in Europe) and focus its strong navy and commit troops to attacking France directly (along with its ally Fredrick the Great of Prussia), the New World could have been spared as a theater of the War. England, knowing that France did not have a navy strong enough to transport troops and supplies to win in America, might have decided that America was theirs for good and that England should therefor focus military action directly against France. This would mean the Colonies would have less to fear, and they might not have felt the need to unite in defense.

Also, maybe England would instead decide to wage economic war against France, and to treat the Colonists a lot better then they actually did. England regarded its colonies as golden gooses that you just squeeze the crap out of. Thus, you get bumbling moves like the Stamp Tax. What if, instead, England had decided that the better way to extract wealth was to invest in growth and productivity, rewarding entrepreneurship and fostering strong market development. As kingledion points out, each colony had different things to offer, and under an English crown, these differences would be skillfully exploited for the good of the Crown, but also for the good of each colony individually. If each colony is relatively happy with its relationship to England, then there's nothing to rebel against. Call off the tea party.

  • $\begingroup$ Hrmmm I wonder how this would have played out from there though. Would the states gain independence similar to Canada or with Canada or would this strengthen unity with the UK making what would be Canada and the 13 colonies remain part of the UK which would lead to making slavery illegal years earlier and likewise having US joining into the WW1/2 earlier... and would France have a Revolution or be conquored? This would be really interesting with the early 20th century. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Sep 15, 2016 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ The Seven Years War was the first global war, with theatres of operation in India, the Caribbean, North America and Europe. Seizing and denying economic areas was part of the military and Mercantilist economic "Grand Strategy" of all the Powers involved, so North America would have become a battleground regardless. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 16, 2016 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides - I tend to agree. My proposal requires France not to commit troops to America. This maybe could be brought about if England focused on France and blockaded French shipping. The main idea, though, is to preclude the Albany Congress. This maybe could be brought about if the Colonies had enough assurances from the Crown and felt secure enough with British backing. But then this would require George III to have a very different attitude about his colonies. There would still be fighting, but the Colonies would feel secure enough not to band together. $\endgroup$
    – Xplodotron
    Sep 16, 2016 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ The French already had troops in North America (there is a list of the Regiments :militaryheritage.com/charts/7warchtf.htm, plus the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, militias and various Indian allies. The French had a formidable force, and British Regiments imported from Europe and used to fighting in a European environment did very poorly at first. The development of British Ranger units and raising colonial militia forces, plus coopting tribes to fight for the Crown turned the tide. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 16, 2016 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides - True, of course. But, in total the French only had 12,000 troops plus 2,200 Indian allies vs. England's 50,000 regulars and militia. link Wiki says 10K vs. 42K. If England had planned a European war from the outset, instead of an escalating series of attacks on isolated forts in the Ohio Territory, AND if England had sent a few troops to the Colonies just for protection while the main theater would be in Europe, then France might have committed even fewer troops to America and the Colonists would have felt safe. $\endgroup$
    – Xplodotron
    Sep 16, 2016 at 19:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .