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When Does the Revolution End?

13h. The Age of Atlantic Revolutions

Declaring themselves independent
This illustration from 1783 appeared in a history of Britain with the caption, "The Manner in which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England, throughout the Different Provinces, on July 4, 1776."

The American Revolution needs to be understood in a broader framework than simply that of domestic events and national politics. The American Revolution started a trans-Atlantic Age of Revolution. Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense (1776), permits a biographical glimpse of the larger currents of revolutionary change in this period. Paine was English-born and had been in the American colonies less than two years when he wrote what would become the most popular publication of the American Revolution.

Paine foresaw that the struggle to create an independent republic free of monarchy was a cause of worldwide importance. For Paine, success would make America "an asylum for all mankind." After the war Paine returned to England and France where he continued his radical activism by publishing a defense of the French Revolution, in his most famous work, The Rights of Man (1791). Paine also served as a politician in revolutionary France. His international role reveals some of the connections among different countries in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Slaves take revenge against the French in St. Domingue
When word of the French Revolution spread to the enslaved blacks on plantations in Haiti, 13 years of rebellion and war ensued. The end of the Haitian Revolution marked the beginning of the first independent black nation in the west.

The French Revolution surely sprung from important internal dynamics, but the connection between the French struggle that began in 1789 and the American Revolution was widely acknowledged at the time. As a symbol of the close relationship, the new French government sent President Washington the key to the door of the Bastille, the prison that had been destroyed by a Parisian revolutionary crowd in one of the great collective actions of the French Revolution. For a time, most Americans celebrated the French overthrow of an absolutist monarch in favor of a constitutional government.

However, in 1792 and 1793 the French Revolution took a new turn with the beheading of the king. Thus began a period of radicalization that saw significant action on behalf of oppressed groups (from the poor to women to racial outcasts). Unfortunately, this period was also marked by rapidly rising violence that was often sanctioned by the revolutionary government. This violence swept beyond the boundaries of the French revolutionary republic, as it soon became locked in a war that lasted to 1815 against a coalition of traditional European powers headed by Great Britain.

Fall of the Bastille
Americans heralded the French Revolution as the coming of an age of democratic governance on both sides of the Atlantic. This painting, Fall of the Bastille illustrates the bloody events of July 14, 1789.

The winds of the Age of Atlantic Revolutions soon carried back across the Atlantic to the French colony of St. Domingue in the Caribbean. Here, enslaved people responded to the Paris government's abolition of racial distinctions with a rebellion that began in 1791. Long years of violent conflict followed that ended with the creation of the independent black-run Republic of Haiti in 1804. The United States had been joined by a second republican experiment in the New World.

In comparison to the French and Haitian Revolutions, the lack of radical change in the American Revolution is glaring. The benefits of the American Revolution for the poor, for women, and, perhaps most of all, for enslaved people, were very limited. Nevertheless, the American Revolution did transform American society in meaningful ways and it accomplished its changes with comparatively little bloody violence. Most notably of all, the American Revolution created new republican political institutions that proved to be remarkably stable and long lasting.

As Abraham Lincoln viewed it half a century later on the verge of the Civil War, the Union had to prevail so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

For all its limitations, the American Revolution had also built a framework that allowed for future inclusion and redress of wrongs.

On the Web
Thomas Paine
Few have been involved in as much history as Thomas Paine. After his involvement in the American Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and became a key figure of the French Revolution! Read his pivotal essay The Rights of Man along with the rest of his major writings, view a classic portrait, and peruse one of several biographies all at this Thomas Paine National Historical Association site.
The Haitian Revolution
Brought to you by Washington State University, this chapter of their "African Diaspora" series gives a good overview of the causes and the conflict itself. Recounted are the exploits of Toussaint L'Ouverture and John-Jacques Dessalines, along with a mention of how the slave owners of the American south responded to news of the bloody revolt. Not a whole lot of depth here, but a good place to get your bearings.
The Rights of Man
When England's great statesman Edmund Burke used his pen to criticize the revolution in France, Thomas Paine shot back with The Rights of Man. Paine celebrated the French uprising and was forced to flee England for doing so. Go and have a look at a portrait of Paine and the first few pages of the pamphlet, and learn of the amazing impact those words had on the world.
The surname L'Ouverture, ("the opening" in French), was given to the Haitian revolutionary by his men. Terrifying to whites, inspiring to blacks, he was a man who always found an opening.
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According to Wired magazine, the internet is just what Thomas Paine and other revolutionaries were looking for: A method by which people could easily publish ideas and use them as weapons against tyranny and oppression.
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Thomas Paine found inspiration in the life of George Washington as he penned The Rights of Man. He dedicated the work to Washington and referred to himself as Washington's "much obliged, and obedient humble servant."
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