The American Revolution was a liberal revolution. A new country was established, based upon new ideas, including the existence of human rights and the need to limit government’s power through checks and balances. By comparison, the French Revolution was a radical revolution. Everything was attacked, from government and religion to weights and measures and the calendar. The United States settled into a relatively stable country with one dramatic Civil War, while France’s history was marked by instability, with a new form of government attempted every few years. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the western hemisphere entered a new phase of revolutions that were neither radical nor liberal, but were largely conservative in nature.
Every rule has an exception, and in this case the exception is Haiti. Spain and France had divided the island of Hispaniola between them, both colonial governments honoring the thirteenth century reformer Dominic by their names—Santo Domingo for the Spanish, and Saint Domingue by the French. The principle exports of the island were sugar and coffee, and the cultivation of these crops led to a population that consisted of ten black slaves for every white European citizen. During the French Revolution, the slaves living in the French half of the island revolted, declaring an independent nation called Haiti. Embroiled in its own conflicts, France was unable to squelch the rebellion. Finally in 1804, when Napoleon was in charge of France, the new nation of Haiti was recognized as independent, and it has remained such to the present.
In 1807, France and its allies invaded Portugal, and the next year Napoleon placed his brother on the throne of Spain. These conquests led to unrest in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World. The Portuguese royal family escaped to Brazil where they maintained a government in exile. Brazil achieved a semi-independent status from Portugal during these years. When Napoleon was defeated in Europe, most of the royal family returned to Lisbon, but Dom Pedro remained in Brazil and achieved control of the new Brazilian Empire, whose independence was finally confirmed by the Portuguese government in 1825. Some battles were fought in Brazil during the struggle for independence, but the revolutionary war and independence were largely accomplished without bloodshed.
Argentina, Mexico, and other Spanish-speaking colonies experienced similar exchanges of power, although none of them received royalty from Europe. Revolutionary leaders, including Simon Bolivar, hoped to create a grand, western-hemisphere, Spanish speaking Republic, but regional differences prevented that goal from being accomplished. With military support from Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay fought for independence from the Argentine government in Sao Paolo; further north, Columbia and Venezuela and Nicaragua and Guatemala and other regions each formed their own government instead of cooperating to form the grand republic imagined by Bolivar.
These new countries were not based on the proposition that all people are created equal, endowed with human rights. Nor did they espouse the concept of limited government. Instead, they continued the traditional belief that only a few people have the gift of leadership; the bulk of the people are followers, whether they are free workers or slaves. Cut off from European royal families, these nations placed control of the government into the hands of caudillos, strong rulers who maintained the status quo in each nation. If they were challenged and overthrown, their replacements were always from the same class, a new caudillo seizing power and ruling in the same manner as his predecessor.
The fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, warned European powers to respect the independence of American nations and warned them not to interfere in the western hemisphere. Weakened by the Napoleonic wars, most European nations did as Monroe asked. Only the United Kingdom challenged the Monroe Doctrine, continuing to trade with the former Spanish colonies, deriving raw materials while selling finished products made in Europe. The United States treated these neighbors in much the same way. Industrialization remained, for a time, in Europe and North America, while the rest of the Americas joined Africa and Asia in subjugation to those nations formed by Enlightenment ideals, capitalist economies, and industrial successes.
One attempt to override the Monroe Doctrine happened while the United States was distracted by its Civil War. Napoleon III of France supported Archduke Maximilian of Austria in an attempt to create a new empire in the western hemisphere. Maximilian and his forces captured the capital, Mexico City, and held it for a time, but they never gained control over the rest of Mexico. Instead, they were overthrown by the Mexican population, with the chief Mexican victory won in the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 (thus creating the holiday Cinco de Mayo). One legacy of the conflict was a bit of propaganda created by Napoleon III to drive a barrier between the new nations of the west. Distinguishing the Spanish, Portuguese, and French speaking nations from their English speaking neighbors to the north (the United States and Canada), Napoleon described the former group as “Latin America.” Not only did the label remain; the attitude of division has remained, as citizens of Latin American countries continue to regard the United States and its leaders with suspicion and distrust.
If the thirteen colonies had remained under British rule, slavery would have been abolished there by the Act of 1833. Abolition of slavery throughout the world followed industrialization, the development of machines to replace human labor. Slavery effectively ended in the islands of Great Britain by 1800; the slave trade was ended in 1803, with abolition of slavery enforced throughout the Empire thirty years later. The idea of abolishing slavery was already strong in the northern states by the time of independence, but compromises allowed slavery to continue in the southern states, and new states were admitted into the nation in pairs—one a free state, the other a slave state. Meanwhile, the fledgling nation grew in population and in size. Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. Settlers from the United States moved into northern Mexico, then declared independence, forming the new country of Texas. A year later, Texas voted to join the United States. Military opposition from the Mexican government led to war, with the further loss to Mexico of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Tensions between the slave-owning south and the abolitionist north finally boiled over in a Civil War which was won by the industrialized north. Through it all, the United States continued to prosper, discovering gold and other minerals in its western territories, accepting immigrants by the thousands from Europe and Asia, and putting to work industrial accomplishments such as the railroad, followed in the twentieth century by the automobile and the airplane. But many other new things were happening in the rest of the world that would also reshape life in the American nations. J.