Remember all of those Enlightenment ideas from last era in Europe? People like John Locke were like, “You should be able to change your government if it’s not serving the people!” And other people were like, “Yeah! We have rights!” How good am I at reviewing stuff, by the way? So those ideas get put into action in the Modern Era, starting with the American Revolution.
Anatomy of a Revolution
It’s really cool because most revolutions throughout history follow a pretty similar path. Historian Crane Brinton coined the term “anatomy of a revolution” and it basically goes like this: people grow more frustrated with an old regime until there is eventually violence or a forceful overthrow. A new, moderate government gets established that institutes some change. But people within the government disagree over what the new government should look like – often this disagreement splits between moderates and radicals. Chaos ensues until a new power, sometimes a strong man, step in and reassert control.
The other way I like to think about revolutions is through triangles. I draw so many triangles on my white board when I talk about this era it looks like a geometry class in there, but fun. Basically, if you envision society as a triangle – the elites at the top, the upper middle class right below them, and then everyone else at the bottom. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call the elites the 1’s, the upper middle class the 2’s, and everyone else the 3’s. The “everyone else” or 3’s section of this triangle is way bigger than any other group.
What pretty much always happens in a revolution is that the 1’s control everything, which makes the other groups mad. The 2’s – who are typically educated and have some access to the power structure – go down to the 3’s and get them all riled up. “This sucks!” “How dare the 1’s tell us what to do!”
The 3’s go “Yeah you’re right! This does suck! Let’s get rid of the 1’s!” They form a military – the 2’s are in charge and the 3’s are the ones who fight and die. And at the end of the day, nothing in the triangle has changed except that the 1’s are gone. When the dust settles, the 3’s – or the vast majority of the population – don’t actually experience a lot of real immediate change. But the 2’s are happy because now they’re at the top.
Anatomy of the American Revolution
Let’s take the American Revolution for example. The Founding Fathers were 2’s. The only people above them were the British. And they had been left alone and allowed to sort of govern themselves – be pretend-1’s for a little while – until the British come back and try to reassert control and start taxing everyone. That makes the Founding Fathers mad.
So they rebel and get the rest of the colonists fired up and they join the cause. But when the dust settles and the Constitution is eventually written, most people’s lives haven’t changed – slaves are still slaves, poor white people are still poor white people, women are women. The only people who can vote are white property-owning men. The only difference is that the Founding Fathers are now on top. So, in this way, our revolution really wasn’t that revolutionary.
The global American Revolution
Also, did you know that the American Revolution was actually a global conflict? For one, we got a ton of support from the French government – who were eager to see the British, their enemy ever since the 100 Years War, lose their most valuable colonies. But also, there were a TON of powers in Europe and the Middle East who were really excited about the American Revolution. To them, it was hilarious that the tiny little 13 colonies thought they could overthrow the British. And they thought, for sure, that if we were to somehow win we wouldn’t be able to survive on our own for long – and maybe one of them could scoop us up for themselves. So these other countries did everything they could to help us beat the British.
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia – she’s my favorite and we’ll talk about her a lot in a few episodes. She led a thing called the League of Armed Neutrality. Basically, the idea was for all of the “neutral” powers to protect each others ships from being seized by the British and searched for weapons that they might be sending to the American revolutionaries or other enemies of the British (there were other wars going on in Europe at this time, too.) Basically, it challenged the British dominance of the seas and made it slightly harder for them to police countries like the French sending help to the Americans. And British ships were harassed all around the globe.
Even though it didn’t accomplish much – the British navy was so powerful – it is representative of the way a lot of the world was watching the Revolution and our “Shot heard ‘round the world.” They wanted to do what they could to weaken the British Empire so that maybe one of them could rise to dominance.
Basically, while we were focused entirely on fighting the British, the British were fighting much bigger powers all around the world. In the end, we didn’t really win the Revolution – Britain just got tired, decided to cut their losses, and go home. Yay America!
A new democracy
But, the way that our Revolution was revolutionary was in what it represented. This was the first time that a colony successfully rebelled against its mother country in modern times. And we didn’t beat just any mother country, we beat the freakin’ British. Nicely done. Also, we did not replace a king with another monarch.
Let’s go back to that anatomy of a revolution. We grew frustrated with the old regime, rebelled, and established a new government. There were disagreements about what that new government should look like – should the power go to the states or the federal government? What should we do about slaves? Eh, we’ll figure that out later. And it was totally possible that we could have seen the rise of a strong man who takes over in place of the king. But instead we got George Washington.
Thank you George
Y’all. I love George Washington. I don’t think people realize how grateful we should be that he was our first president. Think about it. He stepped into a new, completely undefined position – no one had ever been a president before EVER IN ENTIRE THE WORLD. This position had previously been occupied by a king with absolute power. There were no term limits, and a lot of people in the country called for him to rule indefinitely – some even wanted to give him a crown.
But George, we’re on a first name basis; he didn’t want that power. He recognized, as a product of the Enlightenment, how important it was to set a precedent that no single person should hold too much power for too long. He steps down after 2 terms in office and retires to Mount Vernon. And by doing that, he allows the U.S. to avoid the chaos and/or the slide into dictatorship that almost every other post-revolutionary country will experience. ::sigh::
For an idea of what might have been our fate if it weren’t for George, let’s head to France…