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