The Lesson of the American Revolution

Washington Crossing the Delaware. By: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The American Revolution changed political theory and government. At the heart of that change was the empowerment of the people, which continues to present day America.

In 1792, Joel Barlow noted that the American definition of “people” had changed from the inherited European definition. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 607. In America, “it meant the whole community and comprehended every human creature in the society; in Europe, however, it meant ‘something else more difficult to define.'” Id. quoting Joel Barlow, Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe Resulting from the Necessity and Propriety of a General Revolution in the Principles of Government (Ithaca, N.Y. 1956, first published London, 1792), 17.

Because Americans had no “distinctions of titles, families, or nobility, they acknowledged and reverenced only those distinctions which nature had made, in a diversity of talents, abilities, and virtues.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 607.

Government had no choice but to provide “for the security of every individual, as well as a fluctuating majority of the people.” James Iredell, “To the Public,” (1786), McRee, Life of Iredell, II, 146. In this way, government was no longer just promoting “the collective happiness of the people,” it was also protecting citizens’ liberties and property. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 609.

This taps into potentially one reason for America’s prolonged success. America would not rely on its citizens having a “spartan self-sacrifice to some nebulous public good,” but instead, America would perpetuate its success because “each individual would have in his own self-interest and personal freedom.” Id. at 612 citing Samuel Williams, History of Vermont, 206-07, 344-45. On that note, James Madison warned in 1791 that the danger to America “was that each individual may become insignificant in his own eyes—hitherto the very foundation of republican government.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 612 citing Madison, Phila. National Gazette, Dec. 19, 1791, Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, VI, 70.

America was not to remain a static nation, with its institutions not embracing change in both the people and the world as a whole. David Ramsay explained that despite all of the flaws in forming the American government, there was one perfect aspect: “They left the people in the power of altering and amending them, whenever they pleased.” Ramsay, American Revolution, I, 357.

Perhaps James Wilson stated the lesson of the American Revolution best: “This revolution principle—that, the sovereign power residing in the people, they may change their constitution and government whenever they please— is not a principle of discord, rancour, or war: it is a principle of melioration, contentment, and peace.” Wilson, “Lectures on Law,” Wilson, ed., Works of Wilson, I, 21. Americans had “institutionalized and legitimized revolution” in that as Americans discovered new ways of comprehending their rights and liberties, they could bloodlessly revolutionize the American government to better fit the people. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 615.

Therefore, the lesson of the American Revolution is that the revolution has never ended. While the government was created at a time when rights for minorities were largely ignored and absent, the Founding Fathers created a system where the people were at the center of government. While the people have used this power detrimentally, leading the country astray from its core values, the Founding Fathers contemplated this would happen and placed faith in Americans to guide the country through those lapses in judgment and onto brighter days.

The empowerment of Americans, as a direct result of the political theory of the American Revolution, should not be forgotten. The confluence of brilliant individuals, who rethought the foundations of government, led to the creation of a system that accounted for its errors, mistakes, and omissions. It is the duty of Americans to spot those errors, mistakes, and omissions, alert others to them and ultimately correct them, continuing the Revolution and continuing to craft a more perfect government.

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