The Spirit of '76

Why did the American Revolution succeed while so many revolutions that followed result in so much bloodletting?

The answer is not that complicated. The American Revolution was not a revolution at all, but an evolution of the existing political order. Much of the old British system was left intact--the state legislatures, the courts, bureaucratic posts, and most important of all, the rule of law. To put it in the vernacular, the Founding Fathers were not trying to reinvent the wheel; merely to make it better.

Equally crucial to the Revolution’s success was education. Most eighteen-century Americans could read and write, which was not the case in revolutionary France, Russia, Asia or Africa where ignorance and extreme poverty prevailed, thereby making the masses easier to manipulate. On our continent, most Americans were educated farmers who chaffed at the idea of being told how to think or what to do. They rallied around George Washington because he led by example. The look in his eyes told them all they needed to know.

The American Revolution was a product of the Enlightenment and therefore a product of ideas, foremost of which was the idea that man was born with intelligence to make his own way in the world without the paternal authority of kings, overlords and the clergy telling him what to do. The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant put it best. “Enlightenment,” he said, “is man’s emergence from his nonage.” This “nonage” or immaturity was caused not by a lack of intelligence, but by a lack of determination and courage to use that intelligence without another’s guidance or approval. “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” Kant’s words were a declaration of freedom. He and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers wanted men to shake off the overbearing hands of political and religious authority and to think and act for themselves.

The Enlightenment’s great gift to the world was the America Revolution and its aftermath--government based on the rule of law. Europe would eventually catch up. So too will the rest of the world. I would love to see it.

Happy Fourth of July,


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