The American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 was not an isolated incident. On the contrary, the war was the first of a series of revolutions in Europe and the Americas that lasted until the middle of the 19th century.
The revolutions in the Americas were largely aimed at freedom from European colonial rule. In Haiti, where 90% of the population was enslaved on the eve of its revolution, the War of Independence was specifically aimed at abolishing slavery alongside European colonial rule. In Europe, some of the revolutions were about breaking away from larger empires. However, many, like the French Revolution, were internal movements that sought to overthrow monarchies.
These revolutions took place for many reasons, and most of them have nothing to do with the United States. However, being a leading international example, the American War of Independence paved the way for other revolutions in the Atlantic world.
What Americans see as the War of Independence was actually part of a much larger global war between the European colonial powers. Under King Louis XVI, the French played a key role in supporting the Continental Army, providing French ammunition, arms and troops to fight against Britain in America. However, the war nearly bankrupted France, exacerbating the economic inequalities that led to the French Revolution (1789-1799).
The French were aware of the ideas expressed by the architects of the American Revolution, and these ideas influenced French culture in the 1780s, says Gordon S. Wood, professor emeritus of history at Brown University and author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
“French aristocrats in the mid-1980s celebrated America in a strange way,” he says. “It was kind of ‘radical chic’… They were totally enthusiastic about the idea of republicanism.” (Many of these aristocrats would later lose their heads to the guillotine during the French Revolution.)
One of the “radical chic” aristocrats was the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought in the American Revolutionary War. In 1789, he participated in the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson, the senior editor of the Declaration of Independence.
The Lafayette Declaration was a key document at the start of the French Revolution, even though the revolution unfolded very differently from what it had in the 13 colonies. Colonial elites retained their wealth and power during the American Revolution; whereas in France, aristocrats lost their lives and their money (Lafayette fled the country during part of the revolution).
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Just a few years after the start of the French Revolution, there was another rebellion against French rule in another part of the world: the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).
European colonization of Hispaniola, today’s island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, began in the 1490s. Spanish settlers brought enslaved Africans to Hispaniola, where they forced them to work on plantations. During the 1600s, France took control of modern-day Haiti, calling it “Saint-Domingue”. When the revolution started in 1791, 90% of the population was enslaved.
The primary goal of the American and French Revolutions was to end the monarchical rule of free whites, not the ability of these free whites to enslave blacks. But the goal of the Haitian Revolution was the freedom of the European monarchy and slavery, and this led to the establishment of a free state ruled by formerly enslaved people.
Despite these differences, the revolutions were related to each other. Several hundred free black men from Haiti fought in the French army during the American Revolutionary War. Among them were men who became key revolutionaries in Haiti. The French Revolution also helped to provide an opportunity—first for free black Haitians, then for enslaved black Haitians—to challenge their own enslavement by France.
Haiti abolished slavery in 1793 and became an independent state in 1804. Yet the United States and European countries were slow to recognize its statehood, in part because of fears that it inspires rebellions among slaves in their own territories. France became the first country to recognize Haitian statehood in 1825. The United States did not until the Civil War. By then, many other countries in Europe and the Americas had undergone their own revolutions.
The Irish Rebellion and beyond
The American Revolution was an inspiration for another region that scoffed at British monarchical rule: Ireland. The country had become a dependent kingdom of England in the 1540s, and thereafter the King of England was also the King of Ireland.
Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, Irish revolutionaries formed the Society of United Irishmen in 1791. In 1798, members began an uprising to oust British rule from Ireland. However, Britain suppressed this rebellion, and in 1801 Britain brought Ireland more directly under its control by forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
There were many other wars of independence across Europe and the Americas during the first half of the 19th century. Brazil gained independence from Portugal, Serbia and Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Mexico all gained their independence from Spain. Additionally, there were many revolutions within European states that sought to replace monarchies with republics.
It was a time of great transformation in the Atlantic world, which has led some historians to refer to this period as the era of revolution.