Revolution, Age of

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The American Revolution marked the beginning of what has been called the Age of Revolution. What began as a protest over taxation in an extended empire exhausted by seven years of warfare against Catholic France gradually turned into a crisis that altered all political and social relationships not only in the British Empire but throughout the Western Hemisphere and northwest Europe, in what is now called the Atlantic world. The American Revolution profoundly influenced revolutionary rebellions in France, Haiti, Poland, Ireland, and eventually Latin America, while creating intellectual ferment in a dozen other societies in the Atlantic basin.

roots of the american revolution

The British Empire emerged triumphant from the long and desperate struggle against France known as the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). France was expelled from Canada, frustrated in its designs in Germany, and largely stripped of its influence in India. Britain's triumph had been fueled by a sophisticated fiscal-military bureaucracy that funded its forces by means of deficit spending. In 1763 these debts began to come due, and the British ministry rightly believed they could not be borne by the home islands' heavily taxed populations. This conclusion, reached with no malice toward British Americans, led to the Stamp Act and the subsequent eruption of a ten-year-long protest movement.

The ideological core of that movement and the society that began to emerge from it in 1776 has been described alternatively as liberal, republican, or based on natural rights philosophy. It was in fact a fusion of a number of clearly identifiable strains of political thought. Initially, at the center of this thought lay the desire to restrict the central state's power by means of actual representation, in which representatives would be voted into office by distinct and geographically definable electorates whose interests they would serve.

The deterioration of the empire's political situation after the Boston Tea Party, the resulting Intolerable Acts, and the Quebec Act, which seemed to establish Catholic government in Britain's new Canadian colonies, led to a fundamental shift in the ideological structure of provincial thinking. What had begun as an effort to preserve the British constitution, as provincials understood it, became a movement for the establishment of an independent republic. With this shift in thinking came universalist views of human rights and human nature that profoundly challenged the assumptions of monarchical Europe and for that matter the slaveholding patricians of the American provinces themselves.

This challenge to preeminent beliefs and social structures were based on the regenerative and even utopic qualities of republicanism and natural rights thought. This thinking encouraged Americans in the restructuring of political institutions. The republican state governments that appeared between 1776 and 1780 reflected this republican utopianism and amounted to a radical experiment in self-government. Three of the states, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and what became Vermont, adopted constitutions that provided for unicameral (single) legislatures, rather than legislatures with upper and lower chambers; these state constitutions proclaimed a radical egalitarian vision of republican citizenry. Upper chambers like the colonial councils were deemed unnecessary, as were governors as they had existed in the empire. The designers of the unicameral governments threw over institutional hierarchy because, they believed, it would allow a few in power to block the collective will of a free republican citizenry. All, or at least all white male property holders, were now considered brother citizens and thus equal. Even those new states that maintained the bicameralism inherited from the colonial period weakened the governors and upper houses, established annual elections in many cases, began to do away with multiple office holdings, initiated the process of abolition in the North, and proclaimed the sovereignty of a republican people free from historical restraints of royal patriarchy and deferential traditions. Based as they were on the startling notion that human nature could be molded into a better, more virtuous form under the right, revolutionary circumstances, these governments reflected and furthered the utopian and universalist ideals within revolutionary thought. It is these impulses that gave the American Revolution its transatlantic appeal.

the french revolution and the british isles

European intellectuals who had been studying classical history and philosophy throughout the eighteenth century now saw these ideals put into effect in a new and revolutionary society. Their fascination took on a real political force, with drastic consequences in a number of societies. The improbable, if not miraculous, American victory against a world superpower only enhanced the notion, as a contemporary put it, that the American Revolutionaries were to be "the Vindicators of the Rights of Mankind in every Quarter of the Globe." The spread of revolutionary republicanism to France greatly amplified their impact in the Atlantic world and northern Europe. After 1789 political unrest came to define life in that huge expanse. Clearly, part of what drove this unrest was knowledge of republican revolutions in America and France.

The explosion in France that began in 1789 profoundly affected all Western societies and indeed beyond. Large numbers of French subjects participated in the American cause on their own account; hundreds of French officers and tens of thousands of men fought with the formal French expeditionary force that aided the American cause after 1778, and French intellectuals studied American Revolutionary principles in reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and salons. Those who had fought in America discussed the American Revolution with friends and neighbors; American writings including the state constitutions were published in French and other languages, allowing the European intellectual caste to discuss them; and Americans themselves visited Europe and spread word of their revolutionary accomplishments. Perhaps the most famous and influential of these "visitors" was the English-born author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) became a central text in the defense of the French Revolution from its all too numerous critics. Paine explicitly linked the French and American revolutions in his dedication of the English-language version to George Washington, whose "exemplary Virtue" in defense of freedom had helped create the preconditions where "the New World" might by its example "regenerate the old."

In America initial near-universal support for the French Revolution eventually gave way to acrimony and disagreement. In 1794 the Massachusetts Constitution Society declared that on the French Revolution's success "depends not only the future happiness and prosperity of Frenchmen, but in our opinion of the whole world of Mankind." The Charleston Society of Charleston, South Carolina, petitioned the Jacobin Club of Paris for membership, which the Frenchmen quickly granted. By then, though, the radical turn of that revolution, signaled by the execution of America's former ally Louis XVI, had fractured the American body politic severely enough to lead to the rise of the first party system. The French example was blamed for much disorder in America, including the Whiskey Rebellion and the appearance of the party system itself, still seen as an undesirable development in a republican society.

The bitter struggle between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans that dominated American society in the latter half of the 1790s was in large part driven by the question of the degree to which, if at all, the American Republic should support revolutionary France. Jefferson and his supporters among the Democratic Republicans urged assistance to a sister republic as part of a broader goal of global republicanization, whereas Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists urged strict neutrality and leaned toward Great Britain in terms of commercial policy as manifested in Jay's Treaty. The resulting controversies almost led to civil war in America.

In Britain response to French developments quickly took on reactionary tones and led to a rallying around George III and the royal family. Although the new revolution across the Channel initially had support in some circles, the revolutionary excesses after 1792, the repudiation of Christianity, and the outbreak of war between revolutionary France and the remaining European monarchies (including Britain, which declared war against revolutionary France in 1793), steered British opinion onto a decidedly conservative path. English and Scottish intellectuals who embraced Enlightenment ideals recoiled at the bloodshed across the Channel.

However, the rejection of the radical egalitarianism associated with the American and French revolutions was not universal in the British Isles. In Ireland religious and national resentments, combined with admiration for the French, encouraged a widespread but failed uprising in 1798, the so-called Year of the French. Despite the bloodshed and anticlericalism in France, support for republicanism and revolutionary France was strong among Belfast Presbyterians, who, together with other groups, formed the United Irishmen in 1791 with the goal of establishing an Irish revolutionary republic. By 1797 the United Irishmen had 100,000 members.

A rebellion near Dublin in May 1798 was put down by British authorities, led by the same Lord Cornwallis defeated by the French and Americans at Yorktown in 1781. Soldiers of France's revolutionary army landed in county Mayo in August 1798 in an effort to pry it from English control, but the effort came too late. Dissent continued for years thereafter, and a republican underground came into being that would exist in various guises in Ireland thereafter.

revolutionary movements in poland and northern europe

To imagine the effects of this republican intellectual upheaval as limited to America and France, or even America, France, and the British Isles, would be a serious error. A fourth nation, Poland, also erupted into a violent upheaval, one that would be used by its neighbors as an excuse to dismember it. Perhaps the least known (to Americans) of the republican revolutions, this unrest grew directly from the American and French examples and again involved soldiers who fought in the American war. In 1791 the Polish assembly ratified the Constitution of 3 May that in effect turned the nation into a constitutional monarchy. Prussia and Russia dismembered the Polish nation in 1792 by means of military invasion. In 1794 Thaddeus Kosciusko, who had served with distinction in the Continental Army in the southern campaigns, entered Poland and issued the Act of Insurrection, calling for a free and republicanized Poland. His rebellion was crushed by the Prussians in October 1794, and he was forced to flee to America. Republicanism, democracy, and various forms of constitutional monarchy became subjects of current discussion in intellectual and political circles throughout Northern Europe in this same period. By 1781 the constitutions of all thirteen states had been translated into Dutch, and intellectuals associated with the so-called Patriot party cited the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 in their calls to reform the government of the Netherlands in 1785. In the German-speaking nations of central Europe, a mixture of German newspapers and French, English, and German-language pamphlets carried both information about the course of events in the American rebellion and the principles of the Revolutionaries to German readers. According to one German writer, "during the American Wars, the only talk in Europe was about liberty." As in France and the Netherlands, the intellectuals of otherwise tradition-bound societies found a source of fascination and endless debate in American developments, which seemed an experiment in the enlightened ideas then afoot in learned circles in Europe. Little did they know that the end result of the embrace of these ideals in France and elsewhere would be a defeated Prussia and Austria dominated by the emperor Napoleon. Significant republican intellectual and political ferment even spread to Scandinavia, where a wave of change and reform took place and was directly linked to the earlier republican ferment in America.

the caribbean and latin america

The impact of republicanism in the Caribbean and Latin America was no less profound. The most immediate reaction occurred in the French-owned part of the island of Saint Domingue, in what became Haiti. There, the oppressive plantation system dominated by a small group of white planters who exploited hundreds of thousands of African slaves to provide sugar and coffee to European markets was destabilized by the spread of revolutionary ideals from Paris. Although the initial meeting of the French National Assembly did not directly attack slavery in the French Caribbean, it did raise the question of political rights for mulattos, which became the first crack in the edifice of slavery. Soon the blancs began fighting among themselves, some resisting revolution, others wanting a cautious revolution, still others pushing for a radical revolution including some or full political rights for the mulatto population. Finally, in August 1791 the explosion came. A huge servile rebellion, eventually involving hundreds of thousands slaves, drove the planter class from the island. Attempts by French, British, and Spanish forces to intervene failed, and Haiti was established as a free republic, much to the horror of slaveholders in the United States and elsewhere.

The continuation of republican revolutions in the nineteenth century in Latin America and Europe, the actors in which repeatedly invoked the American example to justify their own actions, speak to the profound alteration in world politics that began in the 1770s. From this period forward, movements proclaiming the ultimate sovereignty and welfare of a disembodied "people" were seen as legitimate challengers to the monarchical and oligarchic orders that dominated western society.

See alsoAmerica and the World; Americans in Europe; Boston Tea Party; British Empire and the Atlantic World; Classical Heritage and American Politics; Constitutionalism: Overview; Constitutionalism: American Colonies; Democratic Republicans; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought;European Influences: The French Revolution; European Responses to America; Federalists; Founding Fathers; Haitian Revolution; Intolerable Acts; Jay's Treaty; Paine, Thomas; Philosophy; Revolution: Diplomacy; Revolution: European Participation; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation; Stamp Act and Stamp Act Congress; War and Diplomacy in the Atlantic World; Whiskey Rebellion .


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Brendan McConville

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Revolution, Age of

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