American History: A Survey (Brinkley), 13th Edition


America in the World


The American Revolution was a result of specific tensions and conflicts between imperial Britain and its colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America. But it was also a part, and a cause, of what historians have come to call an "age of revolutions," which spread through much of the Western world in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth.

The modern idea of revolution— the overturning of old systems and regimes and the creation of new ones—was a product to a large degree of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Among those ideas was the notion of popular sovereignty, articulated by the English philosopher John Locke and others. It introduced the idea that political authority did not derive from the divine right of kings or the inherited authority of aristocracies but from the consent of the governed. A related Enlightenment idea was the concept of individual freedom, which challenged the traditional belief that governments had the right to prescribe the way people act, speak, and even think. Champions of individual freedom in the eighteenth century— among them the French philosopher Voltaire—advocated religious toleration (an end to discrimination against those who did not embrace a nation's dominant or official religion) and freedom of thought and expression. The Swiss-French Enlightenment theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau helped spread the idea of political and legal equality for all people—the end of special privileges for aristocrats and elites, the right of all citizens to participate in the formation of policies and laws. Together, these Enlightenment ideas formed the basis for challenges to existing social orders in many parts of the Western world, and eventually beyond it.

The American Revolution was the first and in many ways most influential of the Enlightenment-derived uprisings against established orders. It served as an inspiration to people in other lands who were trying to find a way to oppose unpopular regimes. In 1789, a little over a decade after the beginning of the American Revolution, revolution began in France—at first through a revolt by the national legislature against the king and then through a series of increasingly radical challenges to established authority. The monarchy was abolished (and the king and queen publicly executed in 1793), the authority of the Catholic church was challenged and greatly weakened, and at the peak of revolutionary chaos during the Jacobin period (1793–1794), over 40,000 suspected enemies of the revolution were executed and hundreds of thousands of others imprisoned. The radical phase of the revolution came to an end in 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte, a young general, seized power and began to build a new French empire. But France's ancien régime of king and aristocracy never wholly revived.

Together, the French and American Revolutions helped inspire uprisings in many other parts of the Atlantic world. In 1791, a major slave uprising began in Haiti and soon attracted over 100,000 rebels. The slave army defeated both the white settlers of the island and the French colonial armies sent to quell their rebellion. Under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, they began to agitate for independence; and on January 1, 1804, a few months after Toussaint's death, Haiti established its independence and became the first black republic in the Americas.

The ideas of these revolutions spread next into Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, particularly among the so-called creoles, people of European ancestry born in America. In the late eighteenth century, they began to resist the continuing authority of colonial officials sent from Spain and Portugal and to demand a greater say in governing their own lands. Napoleon's invasion of Spain and Portugal in 1807 weakened their ability to sustain authority over their American colonies. In the years that followed, revolutions swept through much of Latin America and established independent nations throughout the New World. Mexico became an independent nation in 1821, and provinces of Central America that had once been part of Mexico (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) established their independence three years later. Simon Bolivar, modeling his efforts on those of George Washington, led a great revolutionary movement that won independence for Brazil in 1822 and also helped lead revolutionary campaigns in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru—all of which won their independence in the 1820s. At about the same time, Greek patriots—drawing from the examples of other revolutionary nations—launched a movement to win their independence from the Ottoman Empire, which finally succeeded in 1830.

The age of revolutions left many new, independent nations in its wake. It did not, however, succeed in establishing the ideals of popular sovereignty, individual freedom, and political equality in all the nations it affected. Slavery survived in the United States and in many areas of Latin America. New forms of aristocracy and even monarchy emerged in France, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere. Women—many of whom had hoped the revolutionary age would win new rights for them—made few legal or political gains in this era. But the ideals that the revolutionary era introduced to the Western world continued to shape the histories of nations throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution - Internet Modern History Sourcebook: The French Revolution - Europe in Retrospect: The French Revolution

When speaking of the age of revolutions, many historians often dwell on the French Revolution as a defining turning point in world affairs, one that reverberated throughout history much more centrally than did the American colonies' war for independence. Why is this so? Do you believe this emphasis is justified?

In what ways were the French and American revolutions similar? How did they differ? What were the respective revolutionaries acting against? By whom were they inspired? And why did they end up so differently? - Africans in America: The Haitian Revolution - Haiti: Revolutionary War

Conversely, the uprising in Haiti received far less attention than the American and French Revolutions, and it occurred at the same time. What inspired the Haitian Revolution, and how did it turn out? Did it appeal to the example of the American Revolution or the French Revolution for inspiration? How was the situation in Haiti unique, as compared to these other two examples?
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