“The happiness of America is intimately tied to the happiness of all humanity,” the young Marquis de Lafayette wrote in 1777. His comment suggests the immediate and the long-range impact of a revolution that was one of the first successful wars of colonial liberation and that established the first modern republic. Soon after the creation of the United States, revolutions would break out in France and in Haiti. And, in the centuries that followed, the desire for liberation from colonial powers would lead to revolutions, and to independence and self government, for many South American and African countries. Was America simply the first—or did the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the commitment to representative government on which the Constitution was based influence the historical path of other nations? This is the question considered by historians in this issue of History Now.
In his essay, “The Other Theater: The War for American Independence beyond the Colonies,” Patrick Spero offers us an important reminder that the American Revolution was, in fact, a global conflict. For the British, the battleground was not only in North America, but in the Mediterranean as well, where the Siege of Gibraltar was the longest and most deadly of all the battles in the war. Spero also provides a remarkable example of what today we would call a terrorist attack in England itself prompted by the war.
In “Advice (Not Taken) for the French Revolution from America,” Susan Dunn examines the similarities—and important differences—that marked the two major revolutions of the eighteenth century. She reminds us how important it is to look closely at the fundamental economic and social differences between the American colonies and France, differences that proved more profound than a shared rhetoric of freedom and equality. The goals of these sister revolutions differed as well. As Dunn persuasively points out, Americans sought a return of lost liberties; the French sought a total transformation of their society and government. The resulting failures of the French Revolution—brought on by the Terror and the rise of the emperor Napoleon—stand, Dunn notes, in contrast to the survival of a government in America based on the sovereignty of the people and the rule of law.
In “Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World: Connections between the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution,” Laurent Dubois looks closely at the revolution in Haiti, or Saint-Domingue, that began in the summer of 1791. This revolt by enslaved Africans led to the abolition of slavery not only on this Caribbean island but eventually in the entire French Empire. Dubois stresses the differences in the American and Haitian Revolutions. For example, the abolition of slavery was not a primary goal of the British colonists as it was in Haiti, and enslaved men and women did not lead the American struggle for independence as they did in the Haitian Revolution. And, although both revolts challenged the European imperial order, the United States was quickly accepted by its former ruler as an independent nation, while recognition of Haitian sovereignty was long delayed. Dubois also points to the very different trajectories taken by the two nations following independence.
In “The US and Spanish American Revolutions,” Jay Sexton finds key similarities between the North and South American revolutions. Both, he reminds us, were civil wars as well of wars against colonial powers. But, Sexton asks, do these similarities point to the influence of the North American revolution on those in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, or Chile? Sexton makes an important differentiation between “inspiration” and “causation,” reminding us to look closely at the historical circumstances within these South American countries for the cause of their rebellions. He also reminds us that US foreign policy in the early nineteenth century shaped the relationship between our country and those in South America more powerfully than the call to arms of our revolution.
As always an interactive feature and lesson plans accompany these essays. In this issue, you will find an online exhibition featuring images from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the Sid Lapidus Collection. We are also providing short podcasts by distinguished historians such as Gordon Wood and Laurent Dubois.
Our next issue, celebrating Women’s History Month, will be on the contributions of America’s first ladies, from Martha Washington to Eleanor Roosevelt. Hope you will enjoy it.
May all our families and friends be safe and secure as we celebrate the promise of a new year.