By the late eighteenth century, Americans enjoyed more liberties than most people in the world, and they paid lower taxes than the subjects of any other European state. Even as they declared their allegiance to the British monarch, they tarred and feathered his royal officials; though they professed loyalty to the rule of English law, they boycotted imports, defied taxes, and burned ships that docked in their ports.83 They came together from very disparate regions and societies because they found common ground in their grievances, their concerns about tyranny, and their notions of self-determination. They were defiant protestors but reluctant revolutionaries; in the beginning, the Americans sought reconciliation with their sovereign along with recognition of their rights.
Once the concepts of liberty and self-representation were lodged in the hearts and minds of the Patriots, the only remaining course of action was Parliamentary compromise or war. Long before the Revolution was ever waged on the battlefields at Lexington, Saratoga, or Yorktown, it was decided in the mansions of the Virginia gentry, the pulpits of the churches, the town halls of New England and the backcountry of Tennessee.
For the first time, the masses seemed to have absorbed and were acting upon their conceptualization of liberty and its meaning. Their actions—and preexisting local feuds—often profoundly influenced the response of colonial elites from the Hudson River Valley to the plantations of the Chesapeake. Dense, sophisticated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophies of the Enlightenment were now articulated in simple, easy-to-read pamphlets by revolutionaries like the Englishman Thomas Paine. Colonists demanded representation, and in the process, accountability on the part of their leaders. The underlying message of the growing tension with British Parliament was the American notion that government exists to serve and protect the people. When it fails to do so, the people can revolt and establish a new government that serves their interests.
Meanwhile, whole segments of the colonial population for whom the rhetoric of freedom was never intended capitalized on its potential for radical change. Slaves seized their own freedom by escaping, fighting behind British lines, enlisting with the Continental Army, or plotting insurrections to take advantage of the social upheaval that surrounded and distracted their masters. They understood the language and meaning of liberty and they pressed for a fuller realization of the revolutionary promise. Many blacks and whites recognized all too well the inherent hypocrisy in waging a war for independence while tolerating human bondage in their midst. Many women also saw the possibility for change that might improve upon their own lives by giving them more individual as well as nationalistic self-determination. Colonial ladies could express their dedication to the cause and derive a sense of self-importance and patriotism by fundraising, spying, weaving homespun, and delivering messages across enemy lines. For white women and all African-Americans, the Revolutionary War offered at least a chance to expand on rights and liberties that had been circumscribed before. When American victory could not guarantee emancipation or equal rights, some groups sought to achieve their aims by allying with the enemy.
The Patriots' war for hearts and minds, having been waged and won for the majority of colonists by the time the actual fighting began, also proved pivotal in the military aspect of the fight. Americans believed in their cause and in their General, George Washington, with a fervor that Hessian mercenaries (from Germany) and homesick English troops could never match. As underdogs, the Patriots were not hampered by the hubris that comes with being the world's foremost power. They also had specific notions of what they were fighting for: theirs was to be a radically new sort of society, one that judged its citizens not on their birthright but on their merits. Even if elite colonists thought differently, and even if their new government—which discriminated against women and African-Americans—seems less than completely egalitarian today, in the context of the eighteenth century it marked a substantial and unprecedented break from the past.
Not all of those who fought for independence had purely noble and idealistic reasons for doing so. Many colonial elites stood to benefit economically from their decision to cast off British creditors and boycott exports so as to inflate crop prices. They were also heavily influenced by African-Americans, whose strivings for emancipation worried the slaveowners who prized a stable society as necessary to protect their most valuable investment and the source of their labor. Others came down in favor of whichever side opposed their own longstanding local enemies. Even among Patriots, infighting erupted over the skyrocketing inflation of Continental paper money, Congress's inability to properly pay and clothe Washington's soldiers, Indian policy, and the lack of essential supplies that resulted from colonial boycotts.
Despite its flaws, the American Revolution changed the world, launching a global Age of Revolutions. Soon after, the centuries-old monarchy of France would fall. Then came the world's first black republic, created after slaves revolted in Haiti in 1791. In 1819, Simon Bolívar would carry the torch of independence from Haiti to his homeland in Venezuela, and the South American republics followed, then Mexico in 1821, and so on, for generations. The Americans did not foresee these consequences and were quite horrified by many of them (especially the Terror of the French Revolution and the specter of slave revolt and black independence in Haiti). Yet these actions remained intrinsically tied to the American precedent of successful struggle for self-determination, liberty, equality, and freedom. Even if equality was a concept applied exclusively to white men in the United States, this alone represented a fairly radical change for the rigidly hierarchical world of the eighteenth-century Western world.
Conservative Americans sought to regain power at war's end, in order to curb some of the radical implications of their revolution. They wanted to preempt anarchy and secure the long-term existence of the new nation, but they were also determined to maintain their privileged economic and social standing. As scholar Hannah Arendt once said, "The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution."84 Nonetheless, once the Patriots had dedicated their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to creating a rupture in the traditional hierarchy of the Old World, it could not easily be closed, even by some of the Patriots themselves. The American Revolution marked the beginning of a society dedicated to the concept of liberty and equality for all. It wasn't perfect, and the principles it established were restricted primarily to white men. But the principles themselves could later be invoked to widen the scope of democracy.