The American Revolution is the defining event in our history.
Every American ought to understand the constructive achievements of the American Revolution:
The American revolutionaries gave us our national independence and committed the new nation to the ideal of personal independence. Our nation’s founding document—the Declaration of Independence—asserted our independence from Great Britain and claimed for the new nation a “separate and equal station” among “the powers of the earth.” The Declaration of Independence went beyond that to explain that the purpose of the new nation was to secure the “unalienable Rights” of individuals, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The American revolutionaries gave us more than an independent nation state. They defined personal independence as well, and asserted that it was the role of government to protect it.
We won our independence in a Revolutionary War. The war last for nearly eight years—the longest war in our history until the interminable foreign conflicts of recent times—and it touched every part of the new nation, from the future state of Maine to the future state of Florida, and west to the banks of the Mississippi River. More Americans were killed, wounded or died of disease as a direct result of the Revolutionary War, as a proportion of the population, than in any war in our history except our Civil War (in which the casualties on both sides must be counted). Our Revolutionary War was the first successful colonial war for independence of modern times and has inspired independence movements all over the world.
To win the war, the revolutionaries had to meet enormous challenges. The colonists who took up arms in 1775 were wholly unprepared for a war against a great power. They had no army, no navy, no capacity to produce arms in any quantity and no financial resources with which to acquire them. The British had the largest and most powerful navy in the world, a professional army and the resources to carry on a war to suppress the rebellion. Their only serious liabilities were the difficulties involved in conducting a war to restore royal authority over a widely dispersed people thousands of miles away, with the threat that their Continental enemies would take advantage of the situation and attack them while they were doing it. The American revolutionaries prevailed in their war for independence by outlasting the British, turning British liabilities into American advantages, making the war too costly for the British to continue and persuading the French to risk supporting them.
The American revolutionaries gave us our republic. At a time when many nations describe themselves as republics, the transcendent importance of the creation of the American republic is not widely appreciated. It should be. Before the American Revolution, nearly everyone on Earth was the subject of a king, emperor, czar, hereditary chief or some other ruler who claimed to rule by hereditary right or divine will. Their people were subjects, legally bound in varying ways to obey their will. Governments everywhere, with few and transient exceptions, existed to advance the interests of the sovereign, which was regarded as synonymous with the interests of the state and of society.
The American revolutionaries utterly rejected this form of government, the purpose it served and the social organization that supported it. Having committed themselves to liberty, equality and natural and civil rights, they based their governments on the will of the people rather than hereditary privilege or divine will. They insisted that the purpose of government was not to advance the interests of princes and kings, but rather to advance the interests of ordinary people. The purpose of government was to advance the res publica—public matters—rather than the interests of a monarch or an aristocracy. The people of a republic are citizens, not subjects. They are ruled, not by other people, but by laws. Those laws, in turn, rest on constitutions—above all the Federal Constitution—ratified by the people themselves. Those constitutions define the mechanisms for making and implementing laws and impose limits on the powers of government.
The United States was the first great republic of modern times and has been, through 250 years, the most successful republic in history. Contemporary critics of the American Revolution predicted that the new American republic would soon collapse and that a monarch or a dictator would succeed to power. The endurance of the American republic has been an example and an inspiration to people all over the world.
Our National Identity
The American Revolution created our national identity. Before the Revolution, the rebellious colonies had no common identity. They owed allegiance to the British government and their institutions were mostly British. English was the dominant language, and the majority were Protestant Christians. The colonies were otherwise remarkably diverse. While most were of British origins, the colonists came from a variety of European countries. Africans and the descendants of Africans, mostly enslaved, made up a large part of the population of the southern colonies and were scattered in smaller numbers to the north. American Indians—divided themselves by language and culture—lived in every colony, both in close proximity to colonists and on the colonial periphery. Each of the colonies had its own peculiar history. The colonies were further divided into economic regions that often interacted more with Britain and other parts of the Atlantic world than they did with one another.
The American Revolution replaced attachment to Britain and the king with attachment to personal independence, republicanism and the new national institutions that evolved under the pressure of events between the outbreak of war in 1775 and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson—the first peaceful transition of federal authority from one party to another—in 1801. The Revolution provided the citizens of the new nation with a shared history—of battles won and hardships endured. It elevated shared heroes—George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Francis Marion, Nathanael Greene, Lafayette, John Paul Jones and others. It celebrated great events—the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the Crossing of the Delaware, the desperate victories at Trenton and Princeton, the heroic defense of the southern backcountry and the allied victory at Yorktown.
The American Revolution elevated ideas and the state papers in which they were given the force of law—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—as cultural icons. It made noble phrases—Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” Nathan Hale’s “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” and John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight”—into national credos. And the Revolution gave us symbols of shared national identity: the image of Washington, the flag, the eagle and others. The Revolution is the source of important parts of our national folklore and the inspiration for works of art—including Trumbull’s Battle of Bunker Hill and Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware—and literature—including Longfellow’s Ride of Paul Revere and Emerson’s Concord Hymn, with its stirring opening stanza:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Our Highest Ideals
The American revolutionaries dedicated the new nation they had created to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights and responsible citizenship. Our national history has been shaped and, in many respects, defined, by debates about the meaning and application of these ideals and their extension to men and women long denied their benefits. The revolutionaries were far from perfect, but they articulated ideals that have motivated successive generations to work to achieve a more perfect union. Their ideals are the standards by which we have measured our progress.
Ideas have consequences. Americans adopted the language of universal liberty, equality and natural rights to provide an intellectual basis for their resistance to British authority. Having embraced ideas that made sense of their rebellion, they were compelled by the logic of their own arguments to consider the consequences of the ideas to which they had appealed. If all men were created equal and a government derives its just authority from the consent of the governed, the traditional arguments for limiting the right to vote to men of property became hard to justify. The ideals of the Revolution undermined the arguments generations of colonists had used to justify the enslavement of Africans and their African-American descendants. They encouraged women to demand the legal rights afforded men, including the right to vote. And, in our time, the universal claims of our revolutionary ideals have inspired—and been employed to justify—efforts to spread those ideals to other countries.
The last 250 years of our history are incomprehensible without reference to our revolutionary ideals. Those ideals framed the national debate over the future of slavery and inspired Lincoln’s great formulation of the crisis of the Union: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The movement for women’s equality drew inspiration from the Revolution in the same way, and is incomprehensible without an appreciation of our revolutionary ideals. The women who led the movement for women’s suffrage—from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where delegates adopted a “Declaration of Sentiments” modeled on the Declaration of Independence, to the young protesters who stood at the feet of Lafayette’s statue across from the White House in 1917 to demand the historic rights and liberties the American Revolution had secured for men—saw their movement as a fulfillment of our revolutionary ideals. They were heirs to the American Revolution, the greatest movement in favor of human freedom in the history of the world, which has not yet concluded and is far from reaching its full potential.