19

What happened in America seems to be nothing of the kind that happened in France a few years later.

American Independence was all about a group of Englishmen exercising their rights under the 1688 Bill of Rights (e.g. 'no taxation without representation' had been a dominant theme in the British parliament since Charles I). In the Thirteen Colonies there were no immediate changes in State laws and society after independence. The American President effectively became an elected king. Slavery continued etc. Society continued much as it had done before, but without the colonial power being involved.

In France there was indeed a Revolution. Society was turned on its head. The King (eventually) lost his. Slaves (including in the French dominions were freed), a popular assembly was set up etc.

My guess is that the term American Revolution was not used until much later, certainly not until after the events in France - after which the two became spuriously linked.

So who, and when did they, coin the term American Revolution?

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    I've always assumed that, in political terms, "revolution" is the name given to a successful revolt, regardless of the amount of social change that follows. – KillingTime Sep 5 '15 at 9:26
  • Considering all the horrors it spawned, I'd imagine the Founding Fathers would have preferred, if the subject ever came up, to disassociate themselves and their work from the French Revolution as much as possible. – Mason Wheeler Dec 11 '15 at 18:53
  • @MasonWheeler Yes America followed the British path of agreeing more with Edmund Burke than Thomas Paine and the French revolutionary theorists. Burke's Reflections on the revolution in France provided the Anglo model of what constitutes liberty. The French and Paineite model is quintessentially expressed - in my opinion - in Delacroix's masterpiece Liberty leading the people. – WS2 Dec 11 '15 at 19:52
  • I think in England the word "revolution" at that time usually meant forcibly replacing the king with a different king. – Michael Hardy Mar 31 '16 at 23:48
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+250

It is spurious to assume that the French Revolution somehow originated the term, or otherwise set the standard for what could be called a "revolution". The reality is that different revolutionaries in different periods of history perceived the term differently. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 would be a much more immediate example to 18th century Americans.

Consequently, the American Revolution was called a Revolution from the onset, at least by some of its participants.


As early as 1776, William Henry Drayton drew explicit comparisons to the earlier English (British) Revolution in his charge to the South Carolinian grand jury.

Carolinians: heretofore you were bound - by the American Revolution you are now free. The change is most important - most honorable - most beneficial ... Unexpected, wonderful and rapid Movements, character the British and American Revolutions: They do not appear to have been premeditated by Man.

- A Charge to the Grand Jury, April 1776

Similarly, the great Thomas Paine made no uncertain references to the revolt as a "revolution". In 1778 he famously praised the American Revolution to be the most "virtuous and illustrious" ever.

But this distinguished era is blotted by no one misanthropical vice. In short, if the principle on which the cause is founded, the universal blessings that are to arise from it, the difficulties that accompanied it, the wisdom with which it has been debated, the fortitude by which it has been supported, the strength of the power which we had to oppose, and the condition in which we undertook it, be all taken in one view, we may justly style it the most virtuous and illustrious revolution that ever graced the history of mankind.

- The American Crisis No. V, 21 March 1778

By 1779, Congress itself ordered the publication of something titled Observations on the American Revolution. Although some contemporaries seemed to have conceived of the conflict more as a British civil war, by the time it was over, it had become "the Revolution" (displacing the previous Glorious Revolution), at least to the Americans.

It is well known that they have heretofore had serious and animated discussion concerning the rights to the lands which were ungranted at the time of the Revolution, and which usually went under the name of crown lands.

- Federalist No. 8, 20 November 1787

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    I know that it is naff to celebrate the excellence of an answer in comments but this is an excellent answer. The attention paid to the perspective of the revolutionists themselves makes for its excellence. – Samuel Russell Sep 5 '15 at 9:58
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    Thank you for the excellent response. You have repaired the alarming gap in my knowledge of the subject. I had quite forgotten about the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But the events in France I'm sure you agree were of an altogether much greater magnitude so far as the development of eventual notions of democracy and human rights are concerned. – WS2 Sep 5 '15 at 12:23
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    @SamuelRussell Not that Semaphore needs it, but you do know SE has a mechanism in place already to reward excellence in answering? Start a bonus, and one of the choices is to "reward an excellent answer," or something like that. If I had more rep, I'd consider it myself. – CGCampbell Sep 5 '15 at 13:59
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    @Semaphore Very impressive! – steelersquirrel Sep 5 '15 at 15:06
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    Very much so bountyable. – Samuel Russell Sep 5 '15 at 15:26
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While it's not definitive proof that the term was widely adopted, there appear to be a number of publications released prior to the French Revolution that reference the War of Independence as a "Revolution".

For example, a pamphlet called "The divine goodness displayed in the American Revolution" was published in New York in 1784.

A French book translated into English and published in London in 1781 was called "The Revolution of America".

3

This question is entirely dependent on the theoretical content of the concept "revolution" and can therefore only be answerable from a perspective.

From the Marxist perspective, a revolution is a fundamental change of the material basis of social reproduction, with a corresponding change in the superstructure of cultural and political reproduction.

The American revolution is worth calling a revolution from the Marxist perspective, because it cemented the triumph of bourgeois forms of politics and culture in the United States. From some Marxists' perspectives, the civil war was a "second revolution" as it eliminated unpaid waged labour in the United States (slavery). However, the first American revolution cemented the 1688 compromise in Britain in its fullness. The 1688 compromise did not hold in the United Kingdom itself until the abolition of the corn laws.

  • "Corn" means something else in American English. Isn't there another term without the ambiguity? – Peter Mortensen Sep 6 '15 at 17:09
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    @PeterMortensen The Corn Laws are established names for the legislations in question. – Semaphore Sep 6 '15 at 19:08
  • Can you elaborate on why you think the 1688 Revolution "did not hold in the UK until the abolition of the corn laws"? Is this something that has been proposed by Marxist historian - Eric Hobsbawm? – WS2 Dec 8 '15 at 18:01

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