The Significance of the American Revolution
The American Revolution had a significance far beyond the
North American continent. It attracted the attention of a
political intelligentsia throughout the European continent.
Idealistic notables such as Thaddeus Kosciusko, Friedrich von
Steuben, and the Marquis de Lafayette joined its ranks to affirm
liberal ideas they hoped to transfer to their own nations.
Its success strengthened the concept of natural rights
throughout the Western world and furthered the Enlightenment
rationalist critique of an old order built around hereditary
monarchy and an established church. In a very real sense,
it was a precursor to the French Revolution, but it lacked the
French Revolution's violence and chaos because it had occurred
in a society that was already fundamentally liberal.
The ideas of the Revolution have been most often depicted as
a triumph of the social contract/natural rights theories of John
Locke. Correct so far as it goes, this characterization
passes too quickly over the continuing importance of Calvinist
dissenting Protestantism, which from the Pilgrims and Puritans
on had also stood for the ideals of the social contract and the
self-governing community. Lockean intellectuals and the
Protestant clergy were both important advocates of compatible
strains of liberalism that had flourished in the British North
Scholars have also argued that another persuasion contributed
to the Revolution: "republicanism." Republicanism, they
assert, did not deny the existence of natural rights but
subordinated them to the belief that the maintenance of a free
republic required a strong sense of communal responsibility and
the cultivation of self-denying virtue among its leaders.
The assertion of individual rights, even the pursuit of
individual happiness, seemed egoistic by contrast. For a
time republicanism threatened to displace natural rights as the
major theme of the Revolution. Most historians today,
however, concede that the distinction was much overdrawn. Most
individuals who thought about such things in the 18th century
envisioned the two ideas more as different sides of the same
Revolution usually entails social upheaval and violence on a
wide scale. By these criteria, the American Revolution was
relatively mild. About 100,000 Loyalists left the new
United States. Some thousands were members of old elites who had
suffered expropriation of their property and been expelled;
others were simply common people faithful to their King.
The majority of those who went into exile did so voluntarily.
The Revolution did open up and further liberalize an already
liberal society. In New York and the Carolinas, large
Loyalist estates were divided among small farmers.
Liberal assumptions became the official norm of American
political culture – whether in the disestablishment of the
Anglican Church, the principle of elected national and state
executives, or the wide dissemination of the idea of individual
freedom. Yet the structure of society changed little.
Revolution or not, most people remained secure in their life,
liberty, and property.
|Click here to print. Answer Key: (1) Answers will vary. It attracted the attention of the European political intelligentsia; strengthened the concept of natural rights; furthered the Enlightenment rationalist critique of the old order; helped to inspire the French Revolution and Latin American independence movements, (2) B - False, (3) 100,000, (4) B - False.|
Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005