The Americanness of the American Revolution

A key reason the revolution succeeded was its strictly limited scope. The Founders sought only liberty, not equality or fraternity. They aimed to make a political revolution, not a social or an economic one.

The early American settlers, including these Pilgrims taking ship in Delfshaven, Holland, in 1620, cherished liberty because they had experienced religious oppression in the Old World, and they made their own personal social revolutions by escaping to the New.

Why was the American Revolution, of all great revolutions, the only successful one, resulting in two centuries and more of unexampled freedom and prosperity? The French Revolution, by contrast, illuminated by America’s example and Enlightenment thought, began in blissful optimism but collapsed into a blood-soaked tyranny much worse than the monarchy it deposed. It spawned a military dictatorship that convulsed Europe and roiled half the globe for over a decade with wars of grandiose imperial aggression that slew at least 3 million. And the result of 25 years of turmoil? The Bourbon monarchy, minus the Enlightenment of its earlier incarnation, settled comfortably back down on its throne.

The Russian Revolution switched one despotism for another; and a century later, after the millions of deaths from its purges, slave camps, and intentionally inflicted famines, Russia remains a despotism, without rights or justice. We all get only one life: imagine someone born under the billowing flags of the new Soviet Union in 1917, who had to live that whole single life without the freedom so much as to speak the truth of the squalid, oppressive reality he saw in front of his own eyes. One single life—and what you can make of the one you have depends so much on what others have done to mold the time and place in which you live.


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