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Talkin’ about a ‘Revolution’

Amid Fourth of July parades and fireworks, I found myself asking this: why do we call this day ‘Independence Day’ rather than ‘Revolution Day?’

The short answer, of course, is that on 4 July, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a day that has been commemorated since 1777. And the term ‘Independence Day’ has its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1791, when it appeared in an entry in Jacob Hiltzheimer’s Diary: ‘This being Independence Day,’ the Pennsylvania assemblyman wrote, ‘the Governor invited several of the neighbors to dine with him.’ In 1870, Congress got around to making Independence Day a holiday for federal employees (though it was an unpaid holiday until 1938).

In school, however, the events of 1775 through 1783 may either be called the War of American Independence or the Revolutionary War. The term ‘War of American Independence’ suggests a struggle to become a sovereign nation. ‘Revolution,’ on the other hand, implies both a new political order and the overthrow of an older one. So we have every right to be curious about when the term ‘revolution’ joined ‘independence’ in reference to US history.

‘Revolution,’ it turns out, was rarely used in colonial pamphlets in the years leading up to 1776. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense talked of ‘independence,’ using terms such as ‘separation,’ ‘civil war,’ and ‘natural rights.’ When ‘revolution’ was used, it was only in reference to Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the unseating of James II, and his replacement by William and Mary. In Common Sense, the word ‘revolution’ occurs just once when Paine says: ‘Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the Conquest; in which time there have been (including the Revolution), no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions.’

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“Thomas Paine, engraving” by Marion Doss. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Historian Ilan Rachum, who has studied the diffusion of the term ‘revolution’ from astronomy to political usage, suspects that the strong association of the word with the overthrow of James II is why the term was generally absent from eighteenth century American political discourse. The term ‘American Revolution’ appears in print in the title of a government publication, apparently for the first time, in February 1779. The report, written to Gouverneur Morris of New York, was called ‘Observations on the American Revolution.’

Thomas Paine himself preferred the usage ‘American Crisis,’ but when the Abbé Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, a French theologian, published Revolution in America in 1781, Paine found himself forced to use that term in his response. Raynal had suggested that American independence was motivated more by a refusal to pay taxes rather than principles of democratic self-government. Paine, on retainer to the new government, responded in 1782 with ‘A Letter Addressed To The Abbe Raynal, On The Affairs Of North America; In Which The Mistakes In The Abbe’s Account Of The Revolution Of America Are Corrected And Cleared Up.’

The causes of the American Revolution, Paine argued, were unique in that ‘the value and quality of liberty, the nature of government, and the dignity of man… produced the Revolution, as a natural and almost unavoidable consequence.’ In Paine’s letter, the ‘American Revolution’ meant a change of government in the direction of a worthier, more deserving political system, not merely the replacement of one leader for another.

Raynal’s Revolution of America and Paine’s critique received wide public attention. Soon, other works began to appear, referring to the American Revolution as Paine did, including Richard Price’s 1784 Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, and the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World. By 1789, when David Ramsay’s work, The History of the American Revolution, appeared in Philadelphia, the new usage had already gained a wide currency.

As it turns out, we Americans were the real ‘revolutionaries’ in this case–we had revolutionized the meaning of a word.

Image Credit: “Redcoats & Rebels Revolutionary War Reenactment” by Lee Wright. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules Levin

    Because of all the turmoil in England through the 17th Century, the American colonies were de facto self-governing through the Seven Years War, after which England attempted to impose a new order in North America to help recoup its expenses. What happened in America then was as much counter-revolution as revolution; that’s why it was led by the most conservative elements of society–rich planters and Boston lawyers. But there was a war, and the word revolution implies a war, while Independence does not. Hi Ed, remember me from Princeton summer?

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