How 'revolutionary' was the American Revolution?

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pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In one sense the American Revolution was quite revolutionary. It helped to launch a movement in the Atlantic World which challenged the idea of the divine right of kings to rule. Before the American Revolution, similar independence movements in the Western world were often put down bloodily. After the American Revolution, the French people overthrew their own monarch; however, this Revolution ended differently, and, in the end, monarchy still returned to France. After the Revolution, Haitians found the nerve to overthrow their colonial masters and, within fifty years, many South American countries achieved independence. Over two hundred years later the American Revolution's ideals of "all men are created equal" still resonated with independence movements in Vietnam.

The American Revolution was quite revolutionary in the sense that the revolution did not "eat its young"; the revolutionaries weren't killed in ensuing revolutions. The Election of 1800 proved the true success of the American Revolution, because it demonstrated that the United States could change governmental leadership peacefully. When one compares the attempted transition of power in many of the Italian city-states and France, from the same time period, this is no small accomplishment, and this is probably the greatest enduring legacy of the American Revolution.

However, in one sense, the American Revolution did not change society a great deal. The words "all men are created equal" rang hollow for women, natives, and slaves. After the Revolution, many states still had property requirements for prospective voters. The Founding Fathers actually did not want everyone to enjoy full access to politics as they feared that the public would vote according to their passions at the time, and that few people had the "virtue" to vote for the long-term needs of the nation. While the American Revolution was definitely a step in the right direction towards making government more fair for all, it is still an ongoing process in American politics today.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a very typical question to ask in US history classes, in part because you can argue it in many different ways.  Let us look at three possible positions on this topic.

First, it is possible to say that the American Revolution was not very revolutionary at all.  We can say that relatively wealthy white men ran the colonies and relatively wealthy white men ran the United States after it became independent.  This was not a revolution that overturned the social order.  It did not bring rights for women or non-whites.  It did not redistribute income or power to the poor.  It generally just took a colonial elite and put them in power without having a British elite above them as there previously had been.

Second, it is possible to argue that the American Revolution was revolutionary.  The United States, even dominated by white men who were relatively wealthy, was much more democratic than the UK was.  The US explicitly protected things like civil liberties while the UK did not have explicit protections for freedom of speech and actually did have an established religion.  In these ways, you can say that a major break occurred with the Revolution.

Finally, you can take the approach of Gordon Wood in his influential book The Radicalism of the American Revolution.  Wood argues that the Revolution was not very revolutionary in the short term.  However, in the long term it was extremely revolutionary because it encouraged people to think in radically new ways.  White men of all economic statuses came to think of themselves as equals.  This egalitarianism has spread over time to the point where women and non-whites can now generally see themselves as equal to white men.  This, Wood would say, is the true reason why the Revolution was revolutionary.

Any of these arguments is plausible.  Which one makes the most sense to you?

mrsbruning eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Revolutionary War was very revolutionary for its time because during the 18th century it was almost unheard of to go against the monarchy. The movement of our patriots to stand against the monarchy for independence coincided with the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. The Age of Enlightenment began in the 1650's and ended in the 1780's. This was a time when thought shifted from traditional lines of authority; such as believable information only coming from a monarch; to individual reason, analysis and thought. Many nations were watching the American Revolution to see if such a movement would be possible in their own country. The English army at that time was the strongest in the world and no one dared to go against them. When the United States won the war other countries, such as France, took notice of the outcome and thus launched their own independence movements. Without the American Revolutionary War the French peasants would have never risen against their own monarchy. It is the spirit of the American Revolutionary War that continues to inspire others. 

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