British ships docking in a city.

Paul Revere, “Landing of the Troops,” ca. 1770, via The American Antiquarian Society

Seen from 1763, nothing would have seemed as improbable as the American Revolution. The Empire’s North American colonists had just helped to win a world war and most had never been more proud to be British. And yet, in a little over a decade, those same colonists would declare their independence and break away from the British Empire.

The Revolution built institutions and codified the language and ideas that still define Americans’ image of themselves. Moreover, revolutionaries justified their new nation with radical new ideals that changed the course of history and sparked a global “Age of Revolution.” But the Revolution was as paradoxical as it was unpredictable. A revolution fought in the name of liberty only further secured slavery. Resistance to centralized authority tied disparate colonies ever closer together under new governments. A government founded to protect a republican establishment fueled new democratic urges and politicians eager to foster republican selflessness and protect the public good instead encouraged individual self-interest and personal gain. The Revolution unleashed many new, unforeseen forces in a new, unforeseen nation.