It’s been a hard time for the American Revolution.
It’s been smeared by the New York Times’s 1619 project as a fight to preserve slavery. Juneteenth, a worthy event in its own right, is considered by some as a candidate to replace July 4, marking a supposedly more palatable and less flawed Independence Day. Statues of leaders of the Revolution have been vandalized and torn down.
This is wrongheaded, ungrateful, and destructive. Ours is the greatest revolution the world has ever known. It succeeded where so many others have failed, delivered a severe blow to monarchy and aristocracy, inspired republican movements around the world, and won the independence of a country whose power and ideals have influenced the course of history for the better.
We shouldn’t underestimate the violence and, at times, the brutality of a multidimensional, yearslong struggle that killed more Americans per capita than any conflict besides the Civil War.
But there was nothing like the Vendée, the bloodbath when royalist resistance to the French Revolution in a western region of the country was put down in a spasm of all-consuming savagery in 1793, let alone the terrors that characterized 20th-century communist revolutions.
The Revolution’s military leader, George Washington, had no ambitions to rule on his own and tamped down a potential military coup by restive soldiers at Newburgh in 1783.
The Revolution didn’t devour its own. Its leaders died in their beds. At the end of long lives, sworn political enemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson struck up a respectful correspondence, and both died on July 4, 1826, still honored 50 years after the Revolution.
When the country’s politics factionalized after the war, no one was guillotined or exiled for his beliefs. Instead, the profound disagreements between the two sides played out in battles in the newspapers and at the ballot box.
The Revolution didn’t seek to wipe all that had come before. There was no Year Zero. The idealism of the Revolution (Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”) was leavened with a realism about human nature (James Madison: “There is a degree of depravity in mankind”).
It established a republican system that endured. Where other revolutions have given way to serial changes of regime, whether in Mexico or France, the Revolution led to the adoption of a constitution of remarkable staying power.
This was an achievement of world-historical importance. In his book The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel writes, “The Revolution commenced the demolition of the early modern hierarchical world of kings, aristocracy, serfdom, slavery, and mercantilist colonial empires, initiating its slow, complex refashioning into the basic format of modernity.”
Were the Revolution’s ideals of republicanism and equal rights incompletely realized, and the men who espoused them often blinkered and hypocritical? Yes, of course. But the Revolution coincided with a searching debate about the status of slavery that opened up new vistas. As historian Peter Kolchin writes, the aftermath of the Revolution saw “the abolition of slavery in the North, a sharp increase in the number of free blacks in the upper South, and the ending of the African slave trade.”
This, too, is an important legacy of the Revolution, although one passed over by critics for whom our failings blot out all else.
Frederick Douglass thunderously condemned the United States for celebrating its liberty while tolerating — or affirmatively defending — the barbaric practice of chattel slavery in his famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Still, he appreciated the greatness of the founding generation and its members’ handiwork.
“It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men,” he said. “Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!”
© 2021 by King Features Syndicate