The American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783 was not an isolated incident. Rather, the war was the first in a series of revolutions in Europe and the Americas that lasted into the mid-19th century.
The revolutions in the Americas were largely about breaking free from European colonial rule. In Haiti, where 90 percent of the population was enslaved on the eve of its revolution, the war for independence was specifically about abolishing slavery along with European colonial rule. In Europe, some of the revolutions concerned breaking away from larger empires. However, many, like the French Revolution, were internal movements that sought to overthrow monarchies.
There are many reasons why these revolutions happened, and most of them do not have to do with the United States. However, by being a prominent international example, the American Revolutionary War set the stage for other revolutions in the Atlantic World.
What Americans think of as the Revolutionary War was actually part of a much larger global war between European colonial powers. Under King Louis XVI, the French played a key role in backing the Continental Army, supplying ammunition, arms and French troops to fight against Britain in America. However, the war nearly bankrupted France, exacerbating the economic inequality that drove the French Revolution (1789–1799).
French people 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.
“The French aristocrats in the mid-‘80s were celebrating America in a strange way,” he says. “It was kind of ‘radical chic’... They were totally excited by the idea of republicanism.” (Many of these aristocrats would later lose their heads at 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 helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence.
Lafayette’s declaration was a key document in the beginning of the French Revolution, even though the revolution played out much differently than 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).
Just a couple years after the French Revolution began, there was another rebellion against French rule in a different part of the world: the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804).
European colonization of Hispaniola, the island of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, began in the 1490s. Spanish colonists brought enslaved Africans to Hispaniola, where they forced them to work on plantations. During the 1600s, France took control of a modern-day Haiti, calling it “Saint-Domingue.” When the revolution began in 1791, 90 percent of the population was enslaved.
The main goal of the American and French revolutions was to end the monarchical rule of free white people, not the ability of those free white people to enslave Black people. But the goal of the Haitian Revolution was freedom from European monarchy and slavery, and it led to the establishment of a free state ruled by formerly enslaved people.
Despite these differences, the revolutions did have some connections to each other. Several hundred free Black men from Haiti fought in the French military during the American Revolutionary War. Among them were men who became key revolutionaries in Haiti. The French Revolution also helped provide an opportunity—first for free Black Haitians, then enslaved Black Haitians—to challenge their own subjugation 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 fear that it would inspire rebellions among enslaved people in their own territories. France became the first country to acknowledge Haitian statehood in 1825. The United States did not do so until the Civil War. By then, many more 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 chaffed at British monarchical rule: Ireland. The country had become a dependent kingdom of England back 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 started an uprising to expel British rule from Ireland. However, Great Britain suppressed this rebellion, and in 1801, Britain put Ireland more directly under its control by forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
There were many other wars for independence throughout Europe and the Americas during the first half of the 19th century. Brazil won independence from Portugal, Serbia and Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Mexico all won independence from Spain. In addition, 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 the period as the Age of Revolution.