How was the American Revolution radical?

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What was radical about the American Revolution was that it challenged and overthrew an established government on the basis of abstract rights. Those rights, as set forth with such eloquence in the Declaration of Independence, were believed by the American colonists to be natural, possessed by men simply by virtue...

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What was radical about the American Revolution was that it challenged and overthrew an established government on the basis of abstract rights. Those rights, as set forth with such eloquence in the Declaration of Independence, were believed by the American colonists to be natural, possessed by men simply by virtue of their basic humanity. In making a break with the British, the colonists believed they were lighting a beacon for the whole of humankind, showing the world that if the innate rights of the people were being violated, then they were entitled to get rid of their government and build a new one from scratch, a government that would protect those rights.

This was a radical notion indeed. In previous ages, government had been sanctified, widely venerated as an institution established by God to maintain order on the earth that he had created. Yet now, the American revolutionaries came along and posited wholly secular ends for government: to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for its citizens. And if the government did not fulfill these overriding ends, then it would be replaced by one that did. From now on, government would receive its legitimacy from the people, from the consent of the governed, not from priests and kings who believed their power to be based upon the will of God.

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The American Revolution was radical for several reasons. One, it based itself on Enlightenment philosophy, especially John Locke's contention that God bestows on every human being the "natural" right of liberty from tyranny. A leader rules not by a divine right that can't be questioned because it is bestowed by God, but by the consent of the governed. This was a radical concept, as was Locke's idea that the governed had the right to overthrow a government that does not serve the people. More conservative people in England and continental Europe (i.e., most of the European elite) saw this as empowering a "rabble" that was unfit to exercise power.

Another very radical concept at the time, also the offspring of the Enlightenment and natural rights theory, was the idea of a republic. Although it seems perfectly normal and reasonable to us, it is difficult to overstate how unnerving this idea was. The European nations were hereditary monarchies: they were ruled by kings, princes, dukes or other royals and aristocrats who passed down their power to their children. A republic, however, was a government elected and established by the people. At that time, the "people" meant free white males, but nevertheless, this idea was frightening to the established power elites in Europe. They knew they would lose a good deal of their power and privilege should this idea spread.

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The American Revolution was radical for many reasons. First, a group of colonists who many considered to be shopkeepers and farmers were seeking to overthrow the most powerful nation on earth and establish their own government. Next, these revolutionaries claimed that their rights had been violated and that these rights could not be revoked, because they came from a higher power. This was at a time in world history when European kings could rule by divine right and rights were given only to those who deserved them. The colonists sought to create a society in which all free men enjoyed certain rights. One could criticize the government, worship freely, and have jury trials for wrongdoers. This was not the case anywhere else on earth.  In many places in Europe, one had to follow the established church and follow governmental law without complaint. The American Revolution was radical in that it gave more power to the common man than any other revolution before it.

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