News

Perceptions Of The US Independence

Multimedia

Audio

With their Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, America's Founding Fathers undertook something nobody tried before. Having broken their ties with Great Britain, they proposed a new form of government. All people, said the Declaration, are born free and endowed with certain unalienable rights. If the government violates or ignores those rights, the people can abolish it and replace it with a new one.

The Librarian of Congress, prominent American historian James Billington, points out that until the American Revolution nobody dared to test similar views in practice.

Mr. Billington says, "Nobody had ever thought that self-government was possible in a diffuse society, on a large scale, and that a government could be based on a written constitution that separated powers."

The leaders of the American Revolution were well aware of the radical nature of their political enterprise. But many historians note that these men, farmers, merchants, lawyers, were in fact deeply conservative, practical-minded people.

The British historian of Polish descent, Adam Zamoyski, is the author of the book: Holy Madness on the revolutions of the 18th and 19th century. He says, "On the one hand there was this hugely religious undertone to the whole enterprise. But at the same time one thinks really of sensible English gentlemen getting around and, you know, "Let's not get too overexcited about this."

Matthew Spalding, Director of the Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, also notices these two sides of the American Revolution. He says it was radical in creating a new system of government, but careful not to upset established social norms and institutions.

According to Mr. Spalding, "It didn't destroy property; it didn't undermine the Church; it didn't seek to overthrow a particular class or a group of individuals. The opposite model, of course, is France."

The French Revolution of 1789 was inspired by the American example. But Susanne Desan, professor of French history at the University of Wisconsin explains that the French Revolution soon turned into a bitter war between different social classes. For some, it was also an experiment in making over not just the state, but humanity itself.

Professor Desan says, "The French wanted literally to regenerate people, remake them, change the way they spoke, change the way they dressed, changed what they believed in. It was tremendously powerful and inspiring, but it also, of course, provoked opposition."

Some historians believe that what helped Americans maintain their unity throughout the Revolution was, paradoxically, their huge diversity.

Historian David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University says that even such basic notions as liberty and freedom were understood quite differently by New England Puritans, Pennsylvania Quakers, slaveholders of the South, and backwoodsmen on the colonies' western frontier. As none of these groups could hope to prevail over the others, they were forced to seek compromise. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had to rewrite the document several times to make it acceptable to all of the colonies.

Professor Fischer adds, "He originally had said that 'all men are created equal and independent,' and New Englanders objected to that idea of 'independent.' The Georgians and South Carolinians believed that their idea of liberty and freedom was entirely consistent with slavery. And so Jefferson had a very strong attack on slavery, which he was forced to remove from the document."

News of the American Revolution spread quickly through 18th century Europe, which was simmering with its own revolutionary unrest. But historian Adam Zamoyski says most Europeans failed to understand either the universal message or the practical lessons of America's limited, socially moderate revolution.

He says, "In Europe, people took the American revolution, misunderstood it, took what they liked out of it, turned it upside down and inside out, embroidered it and launched all sorts of highly ideological revolutions and enterprises to suit their own wishes, pretending they were following in the footsteps of [George] Washington and the American Founding Fathers. I think this incomprehension of what really was happening in America is still with us in many ways. Most Europeans have a very odd view of what Americans are really like."

But Librarian of Congress, James Billington, says the American national experience launched in 1776 is still valid for all those who seek political change without destruction and violence.

"It is the cumulative American experience that is important, that real change is effected by evolution within stable institutions and that you can combine innovation with stability," says Mr. Billington.

The American Revolution, say historians, was a radical change mixed with a strong sense of continuity, a rebellion within self-imposed rule of law, a case of unity forced by diversity. Its paradoxical nature was probably the secret of its success and the source of everything that was and is unique about American history.

This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs