What was revolutionary about the American Revolution, and what was not?
In some ways, the American Revolution was revolutionary. In other ways, it wasn’t so revolutionary.
The concept of a revolution as it relates to government is for a group of people to replace their government if that government isn’t protecting the peoples’ rights. In the American Revolution, that is exactly what happened. When, in the colonists’ opinion, the British government began to abuse their rights, the colonists spent years trying to resolve their concerns peacefully. When change didn’t occur and when fighting eventually took place, the colonists declared their independence and fought for their freedom.
In some ways, the American Revolution wasn’t really revolutionary. It is not uncommon for people to want to replace a government that is not treating its people well. It is a normal reaction. Also, what was created after the Revolutionary War ended in the United States wasn’t significantly different from what existed before the Revolutionary War began. After the Constitution was written, the federal government was strong. People were unhappy with some of the policies created by the government after the Revolutionary War ended. It is normal to expect dissent when a new country forms. That is what happened in our country after the Revolutionary War ended.
Thus, in some ways, the Revolutionary War was revolutionary while in other ways it wasn’t too revolutionary.
There were several aspects of the America Revolution that were revolutionary. The American Revolution was driven by the need for radical changes and the end of British rule. The revolution finally led to the declaration of independence and the establishment of federal and state governments. It also led to the achievement of civil liberties as advocated by the Founding Fathers based on the fundamental laws of nature and religious beliefs. The American resistance which was insufficiently funded finally achieved victory over a large and well financed British army. The American Revolution influenced international relations as it garnered support from other empires such as Spain in their war.
As mentioned, there were also aspects of the revolution that were not revolutionary. The revolution resulted in similar leadership as the British rule and the only difference was it was localized. Women, African-Americans, poor White Americans and Native Americans did not attain their liberty from this new leadership. This group which constituted the “American people” continued to suffer without voting or property ownership rights among other liberties.
In the short term, the American Revolution was not revolutionary. The same kind of people held power in the United States as had held power in the colonies. There was no fundamental change in social relations. Women continued to be unequal to men, slavery continued to exist. There were still property requirements for voting and holding office in the states.
What was revolutionary was the rhetoric of the revolution. This rhetoric, coming from people like Thomas Paine, called for complete equality of all men (not women at that time). Therefore, the Revolution ended up bringing legitimacy to the idea that democracy was a good thing. In the long term, this rhetoric caused America to become very democratic. Within a few decades of the Revolution, property requirements were gone and all white men had the right to vote. Society was arranged by ties among equals, not ties between superiors and inferiors. This was what was truly revolutionary.
A good source for this is Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution.