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.
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 BastilleÏã½¶³ÉÈËÊÓÆµapp, 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.
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.