American Revolution For Dummies
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The American Revolution has had enormous effects on the development of world history since that time. We can learn a lot from exploring other events that happened following the American Revolution and from considering the reasons that this revolution, unlike many others, was a successful endeavor.

It was a revolution like no other, “a revolution,” in the words of the 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke, “made not by chopping and changing of power in any of the existing states (nations), but by the appearance of a new state, of a new species, in a new part of the globe.”

Revolutionary War soldiers © Matt Briney/Unsplash

How big was the American Revolution?

Overstating the effects of the American Revolution on world history would be difficult. It’s been estimated, for example, that more than half of the countries belonging to the United Nations in 2019 could trace their beginnings back to documents proclaiming their legitimacy as sovereign states and modeled on or inspired by America’s Declaration of Independence.

In fact, it could be argued that just a single Revolutionary War battle in the fall of 1777 in eastern New York led to a French king having his head cut off; the end of the Spanish Empire in the New World; doubling the size of the United States; firmly establishing Canada as a British colony; and hastening the settlement of Australia. That may seem a bit of stretch, but consider this:

  • In September and October 1777, American forces defeated a British army near Saratoga. The stunning victory, and surrender of the entire British force, helped convince French King Louis XVI to throw France’s formidable military behind the American cause. That contributed greatly to America’s military victory over the British in the Revolutionary War.
  • America’s subsequent creation of a democratic republic provided a vivid example to the French of how effective an uprising against a tyrannical government might be. French revolutionaries used the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a template for drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. One of the casualties in the French Revolution that followed was Louis XVI — the same monarch who had helped America win its revolution.
  • Inspired by the U.S. and French revolutions and led by Simón Bolívar — the Venezuelan who became known as the George Washington of Latin America — much of Spain’s colonial empire in Latin America revolted in the first three decades of the 19th century. By 1830, what are now the nations of Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Peru had declared independence. In addition, the former Portuguese colony of Brazil and French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had likewise successfully rebelled.
  • The loss of Saint-Domingue to a rebellion led by former slave Toussaint Louverture so irritated the French dictator Napoleon that he launched a major assault to retake the island. That ended in disastrous defeat for the French. The debacle helped persuade Napoleon to forget about a French Empire in the Americas. And that decision spurred France in 1803 to sell America 828,000 square miles of what became known as the Louisiana Purchase, for $15 million (about $335 million in 2019.) That doubled the size of the United States.
  • After the U.S. victory in the Revolutionary War, as many as 80,000 Americans who had been loyal to the British fled to Canada. That had a radical demographic effect on the sparsely populated country, most of whose non-native inhabitants up to that time were of French descent. The influx of the loyalist Americans helped solidify Britain’s cultural and political hold on Canada.
  • Prior to the Revolutionary War, America had served as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted, which included a vast number of those convicted of various crimes. Faced with the post-war problem of where to send its excess convicts, Britain settled on its almost-empty colony of Australia. Between 1788 and 1868, an estimated 165,000 prisoners were transported to the Down Under continent.
Sure, lots of other elements are involved in each of these events that helped bring them about and influenced their outcomes. But there is no denying the American Revolution played a significant role in all of them.

What kind of revolution was it?

Through most of the 20th century and into the 21st, a continual hot topic of debate among historians has been whether the American Revolution was a conservative or radical affair.

The conservative-event camp argues that the real aim of the Founding Fathers was a revolution in a literal sense: a 360-degree return to the rights, liberties and economic system that America had lived under during most of the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries. That was before the British government began looking for ways to raise revenues from its American colonies and started enforcing laws that benefited the mother country at the inconvenience of the colonists.

America’s leaders, the conservative-revolution camp contends, had nothing new or particularly daring in mind in terms of a new form of government. They mostly just wanted the British to stop changing things. The proof of that, the argument goes, is that even after the Constitution was written and the new government framework it contained was established, the same people were still in charge. Slavery continued; women remained legally inferior; and voting was still largely limited to adult males who owned something of value.

But, the radical camp counters, the conservative revolution argument ignores the fact that an entirely new form of government resulted. The Founding Fathers came up with a fundamentally different view of the relationship between government and people. Under monarchies or autocracies, government serves the purposes of the one or the few, and operates through the labor and sacrifices of the many. In the model created by the Constitution, the government functions through the will of the people it serves, as expressed by the actions of the representatives they elect.

True, the radical camp concedes, the Founding Fathers ignored or sidestepped the inherent hypocrisy of a nation founded on lofty ideals of liberty, yet allowed slavery and treated half the populace as second-class citizens.

But they point out that the soundness of the governmental system the founders created has allowed it to gradually work to redress those wrongs: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, for example, ended slavery in 1865; the 19th gave women the right to vote in 1920. These changes weren’t reliant on the desires of individual rulers or even the whims of popular opinion. They came about as the result of Americans operating under a system, which when it was created, was a radical departure from governments of the time.

In the end, it may be futile to attempt to accurately categorize the American Revolution. A revolution is a massive upheaval, undertaken by a mass of human beings with different motives, aspirations — and levels of enthusiasm.

For example, John Hancock was a wealthy merchant; George R.T. Hewes, a poor shoemaker. Hancock presided over the group that drafted the Declaration of Independence; Hewes helped dump tea in Boston Harbor. Neither had anything to gain directly from rebellion. But both rebelled and risked their lives in doing so. Was Hancock a conservative hoping to go back to the good old days, and Hewes a radical pining for a new way of doing things? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. Assigning generalized labels to their reasons may be an interesting academic exercise, but not a whole lot more.

Why did the American Revolution succeed?

As the citizens of scores of other countries around the world can attest, not every revolution works equally well. England underwent two revolutions in the 17th century. One resulted in the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell; the other substituted one monarch for another. The French Revolution gave France — and the rest of the world — Napoleon. The Russian Revolution transformed the government from a corrupt and despotic regime to a corrupt and totalitarian regime.

But the American Revolution, however bumpy its path, succeeded. One reason was roots. Americans mostly derived their ideas about government from Britain, whose people had long wrestled with trying to balance the authority of the state with the liberty of the individual. By the time shots were fired at Lexington, many, if not most, Americans had also enjoyed decades of representative democracy, at least at the local level. Self-government was not a new experience. And unlike many other nations, America had escaped dominance by a single religious organization or secular interest group.

Then there was luck. America abounded in natural and economic resources. Life at the time of the revolution was generally pretty good in the colonies. The desperation faced by starving or war-torn nations on the verge of rebellion was absent and thus so was the desperate need to grab onto the first Cromwell or Napoleon to come along and offer a quick fix.

Finally, Americans settled on three key aspects to the system that helped ensure the revolution could mature. One was the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government — what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “a harmonious system of mutual frustration.”

While the system has certainly generated its fair share of friction, it has maintained a balance the Founding Fathers sometimes feared would be unobtainable. In 1974, for example, President Richard Nixon refused to release audiotapes recorded in his office to Congress, which was considering impeachment proceedings against Nixon. Nixon based his refusal on what he claimed was a “privilege” accorded to the executive branch. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Congress. About two weeks after the court’s decision, the president resigned.

The second key aspect of the America system that differentiated it from those of other revolutions was the recognition that the rights of the minority were every bit as important as the rights of the majority. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first Inaugural Address, “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail . . . the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate (this) would be oppression.”

Finally, there is the elasticity of the Constitution. The document’s framers recognized they weren’t perfect and were thus unlikely to create a perfect blueprint for running the country. In the 230 years between 1789 and 2019, a total of 27 amendments were added to the Constitution. They guaranteed rights, made changes in the process of government — and in the case of Prohibition, made one societal activity illegal and then legal again.

What you can learn from the American Revolution

One of the most rewarding things about the study of history is its reassuring reinforcement of the fact that nobody is now, or ever has been, perfect. It naturally follows that nothing any human has ever done has been perfect.

That, as John Adams pointed out in answering letters from admirers in the first quarter of the 19th century, applied to both the Founding Fathers and their efforts. “I ought not to object to your reverence for (us),” he wrote one fan, “but to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merits of different periods, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.”

To another correspondent, Adams explained that “every measure of Congress from 1774 to 1787 inclusively, was disposed (of) with acrimony and decided by as small majorities as any question is decided these days . . . it was patched and piebald (irregular) then, as it is now, and ever will be, world without end.”

So, one lesson to be learned from the American Revolution is that it’s unreasonable to expect the political descendants of the Founding Fathers to be any more infallible than they — or the fruits of their labors — were.

Which raises a second lesson: The American Revolution wasn’t finished with the end of the war, or the adoption of the Constitution, or the peaceful shift of power from one political party to another. It has been followed by a series of mini-revolutions, additions to the country’s ever-changing menu of unresolved issues and unaddressed problems.

The menu’s items have included the end of slavery; the preservation of the Union; the extension of suffrage and other rights to women; the establishment of a safety net of programs from Social Security to Medicare; the push for a color-blind justice system, and ongoing efforts to ensure that the scales of majority rule and minority rights remain in balance.

And that leads to a third lesson, and one I touch on in the Introduction to this book: The American Revolution isn’t over. “On the contrary,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Founding Father, “nothing but the first act of the drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.”

Dr. Rush’s words were written in 1786. We’re still working on perfection.

About This Article

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Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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