The American Revolution freed colonists from British rule and offered the first blow in what historians have called “the age of democratic revolutions.” The American Revolution was a global event. Revolutions followed in France, then Haiti, and then South America. The American Revolution meanwhile wrought significant changes to the British Empire. Many British historians even use the Revolution as a dividing point between a “first British Empire” and a “second British Empire.” But at home, the Revolution created the United States of America.

Historians have long argued over the causes and character of the American Revolution. Was the Revolution caused by British imperial policy or by internal tensions within the colonies? Were colonists primarily motivated by ideals or by economic self-interest? Was the Revolution radical or conservative? But such questions are hardly limited to historians. From Abraham Lincoln quoting the Declaration of Independence in his “Gettysburg Address” to modern-day “Tea Party” members wearing knee breeches, the Revolution has remained at the center of American political culture. How one understands the Revolution often dictates how one defines what it means to be “American.”

The Revolution hardly ended all social and civic inequalities in the new nation, but the rhetoric of equality encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence has spanned American history. The rhetoric was used to highlight inequalities, eventually aiding the abolitionist movement of the early nineteenth century and the women’s rights movements of the 1840s and 1910s. And yet it was also used to justify secession and oppose civil rights movements. American revolutionaries broke new ground. They had to make it up as they went along. And in many ways, Americans have been doing the same ever since.

This chapter was edited by Michael Hattem, with content contributions by James Ambuske, Alexander Burns, Joshua Beatty, Christina Carrick, Christopher Consolino, Timothy C. Hemmis, Joseph Moore, Emily Romeo, and Christopher Sparshott.