Why was the American Revolution so revolutionary?

Image Gallery: The Revolutionary War A number of aspects of the American Revolution were unique or unusual. Yet it was the creation of a new, democratic state through documents like the Declaration of Independence that made it a radical effort. See pictures of the American Revolution.

Several aspects of the American Revolution make it noteworthy. For example, guerilla warfare played a major role in the war for independence, establishing the method of surprise battle in the modern era and replacing the pitched battle of earlier periods. Another unique aspect of this revolution is that it took place outside the borders of the parent nation. The replacement of one government with another doesn't have to take place within the same contiguous geographic region to be considered a proper revolution. Yet, the American Revolution is often compared to the French Revolution that followed -- and historians often mark this essential difference between the two.

What made the American Revolution so revolutionary, however, was that it didn't involve regime change, but the creation of an entirely new nation and the adoption of a democracy by that nation.

That said, the seeds of democracy had already been planted in the colonies before the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolution in 1783. Many historians cite the Massachusetts Bay colony, officially chartered in 1630 [source: Bancroft]. This was a radical move within the West, which was still largely ruled by monarchies. For the most part, however, colonies were governed absolutely at the behest and pleasure of the English king.

This changed during the Revolutionary War. After the colonies broke away from England in 1776 and the war began, the newly self-governed states began to try democratic processes of government. In short order, however, the early elite came to consider that the potential for mob rule and self-oppression in large states could prove too great for direct democracy, where constituents participate directly in the legislative process.

Theories of direct democracy -- the ideal form of true self-rule according to Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- faltered in practice. Founding fathers like James Madison decided that a republic democracy was more attainable in a large a geographic region as a state or for the fledgling nation as a whole [source: JRank Encyclopedias]. In a republic, officials elected by the people serve in assembly on their constituents' behalf. The people governed don't directly participate, except to vote to elect these officials and occasionally on some issues, as they would for referendums.

Historians have vigorously debated how the American Revolution gave rise to democracy. Some see the revolution as a struggle for self-government; others see it as a class struggle that erupted in violence [source: McManus]. Whatever its origins -- and a number of competing and cooperative factors created it -- the American Revolution in fact did create a new, democratic nation.

Certainly, the concepts that Thomas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence -- that "all men are created equal," and that government derives its power from the "consent of the governed" -- were revolutionarily democratic ideals [source: National Archives]. Yet, the ratification of the Constitution officially birthed the democratic republic of the United States more than a decade later, in 1789. Without the Constitution, the document that guaranteed the protection of the civil rights and the restraints put on the state, the democracy birthed by the Declaration would have existed only in rhetoric. The Constitution put the theory of democracy into practice.

Examining the American Revolution reveals an important point: In the United States, the machinations of democracy established by the revolution have been opened in successive waves. A number of groups have taken on the struggles to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution in the centuries since the United States was established. Simply put, democracy is a process that began in the 18th century and continues today.

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