The Great American Paradox

This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

Many people believe that the United States got freedom and democracy, liberty and justice for all from the violence of the American Revolution.

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There are several problems with this belief. Perhaps most important is that it suggests that the American Revolution is different from nearly all the other violent revolutions of human history, which rarely contributed to democracy.[1]

Why does the American Revolution seems so different from other violent revolutions like the French, Latin American, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Algerian, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian revolutions, each of which arguably replaced one brutal repressive system with another?

How was the US so lucky to have gotten George Washington and not someone like Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot?

Simón Bolívar, 1825

Why did the US grow and prosper when other newly independent countries fractured, shrank, and stagnated economically?


The land claimed by the 13 British colonies in America that declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, was roughly a third of that of the contemporary Spanish colony of New Spain, most of which became Mexico in 1821. Since then, the US grew substantially, while Mexico shrank. Why?

Simón Bolívar, the acknowledged “Liberator” of much of Latin America complained shortly before he died in 1830 that,

"America is ungovernable ... . He who serves a revolution plows in the sea. ... This country will fall unfailingly into the hands of ... tyrants".[2]

How did the US avoid the level of internal conflict that contributed to the dismemberment and disturbingly slow economic growth that plagued Mexico and other countries after independence?

Non-Native American Nations Control over N America 1784: The US had a third the area of New Spain, most of which became Mexico in 1821. New Spain at that time also included substantial territory outside North American including Central America north of Panama, Cuba, Hispañola, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, most of modern-day Venezuela, and other smaller territories.

Three contributors


By some accounts, these differences can be explained by three things:[3]

1. Advanced democracy before the revolution: The British colonies that rebelled in 1776 already had possibly the most advanced democratic culture on the planet at that time:[4] Almost 60 percent of adult white males could vote in 1776, and the Revolution did not change that.[5] By comparison, the British Prime Minister in 1765 said that less than 5% of the population of Great Britain itself was directly represented in Parliament.[6]
1.1. This democratic culture made it easier for the leaders in the early United States to settle their disagreements in ways that maintained their cohesion.
1.2. Research by Chenoweth and Stephan identified 55 major successful violent revolutions in the twentieth century. These revolutions on average had no substantive impact on democracy. Similarly, the American Revolution had no impact on democracy.[7] In this regard, the American Revolution was not different from other violent revolutions.[8]
2. Citizen-directed subsidies for news: Citizen-directed subsidies for newspapers provided by the US Postal Service Act of 1792 helped limit political corruption and encourage literacy, both of which contributed to the cohesion and economic growth of the brand new United States of America.
3. Washington did not win the Revolution: George Washington knew that he did not win the American Revolution.[9] His role was keeping an army in the field, irritating the British enough to keep them doing stupid things. Washington was almost captured on Manhattan island.[10] He was perpetually short of supplies. His own state of Virginia often could not send their allotment of troops, because they were needed for slave patrols.[11] Many in Washington's army often did not have shoes. This made it hard for them to move, especially in the winter, because the British could easily follow the blood in the snow.[12] It's difficult to know in war how much support each side has among the population. However, by 1778 the British had lost several battles in the north and decided they had more support in the south.[13] In late 1778 they captured Savannah, Georgia.[14] And in 1780 they defeated continental armies at Charlston and Camden, South Carolina.[15] Washington sent General Nathanial Greene into South Carolina to collect the remnants of the defeated continental army and organize the partisans. Greene adopted a guerrilla war strategy, nipping at the heels of the British army, then running away. This pulled the British beyond their lines of supply. To continue pursuing Greene, they took what they needed at gun point from the locals, manufacturing recruits for Greene and Washington in the process. After winning several battles in South Carolina, the British General Cornwallis decided he could no longer stay there and retreated to North Carolina, where the pattern was repeated. Cornwallis continued winning battles and manufacturing enemies faster than he could neutralize them. In 1781, he left North Carolina for Yorktown, Virginia.[16] The French Navy then bottled up the Chesapeake and prevented Cornwallis from being resupplied or evacuated while the French Army paid Washington's army to come with them to Yorktown and defeat the British.[17]

But there were also nonviolent actions at that time[18] that threatened the financial and social status of the colonial elites.[19] The destruction of property in the Boston Tea Party increased support for hard liners in London,[20] who then passed the so-called "Intolerable Acts". These included placing Massachusetts under martial law. Nonviolent protests all across Massachusetts closed the King's courts, which prevented creditors from confiscating property of debtors.[21] Demands for greater power sharing continued into the writing of state constitutions that followed the Declaration of Independence, at least in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.[22] Democracy threatened the aristocracy in both the brand new United States and in Britain.

John Adams, a leader of the American Revolution and the second President of the US after Washington, wrote later, "What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."[23]

Beyond that, there were 26 British colonies in America at that time, and only half of them rebelled.[24] If the Quakers and other pacifist groups in the colonies at that time had managed to limit the violence initiated by Washington and others, the British aristocracy might have had bigger problems in the colonies that did NOT rebel and among the more than 95 percent of the population of England that was not represented in Parliament.

It is impossible to know what would have happened if the American Revolution had stayed nonviolent.

  • However, we know that in Chenoweth and Stephan's study of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century, 53% of the nonviolent campaigns were successful, while less than half that, 25%, of the violent revolutions succeeded.[25]
  • More importantly, the nonviolent campaigns on average helped improve democracy, unlike the violent campaigns.

US vs. New Spain / Mexico


Let us now compare the US experience with New Spain and its successors, primarily Mexico. They had neither (1) a comparable tradition of local self governance nor (2) a comparably subsidized and diverse adversarial press, discussed further below, nor (3) a chief executive with the understanding that George Washington seemed to have had of the limits of his own abilities.

These three points provide a plausible explanation for why the US grew by a factor of more than four while Mexico shrank, losing territory to the US in the north and to new countries between Guatemala and Venezuela to the south.[26]

This is also consistent with the database of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century created by Chenoweth and Stephan, previously mentioned.[27]

In general, gratuitous violence -- collateral damage -- strengthens the will of the opposition to resist and drives people off the sidelines to support the aggrieved opposition.

More recently, in the US war in Vietnam and now in the War on Terror, the US has arguably followed the British strategy for victory in the American Revolution.

It is hard to win people's hearts and minds by killing them.

This did not work for the British in the American Revolution nor for the Americans in Vietnam.

And it has not so far worked in the War on Terror.

We next look more closely at the US Postal Service Act of 1792.

Areas of the United States and Mexico 1783-2010.

US Postal Service Act of 1792

Non-Native American Nations Control over N America 1999: The US now has 4.6 times the area of Mexico.

The US Postal Service Act of 1792 is not well known but may be the single greatest achievement of the men who organized and led the American Revolution: Under this act, newspapers were delivered up to 100 miles for a penny, when first class postage was between six and twenty-five cents depending on distance.

  • The revolutionaries who passed that act were upset that King George's postal service censored their mail.
  • They believed that this new experiment in republican government would likely NOT succeed without an informed electorate.[28]

These were citizen-directed subsidies for media. As such they make it difficult for government bureaucrats and others with power to censor the information available to the public.

They amounted to roughly 0.2 percent of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to media scholars McChesney and Nichols.[29] With average annual income (GDP per capita) in 2017 of roughly $60,000, a subsidy of 0.2 percent would be $120 per year per person, which is roughly what McChesney and Nichols recommended.

This subsidy for newspapers seems to have impacted the evolution of the US political economy during its first 70-100 years in two important ways:

  • It limited political corruption.
  • It encouraged literacy.

Both of these factors tend to increase economic growth.[30]

Comparing the post-revolutionary experience of the US with that of the other violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts mentioned above suggests the following:

  • Democracy, liberty and justice for all would likely have advanced quicker if the American revolutionaries had limited themselves to nonviolent actions.[31]
  • The citizen-directed subsidies for journalism provided by the US Postal Service Act of 1792 and the relative democratic character of the new US likely made substantially greater contributions to extending democracy and justice for all than the violence of the American Revolution.

Human psychology and the power of media


Why have so many other revolutionaries been more likely to follow Washington than Gandhi?

A partial answer to this question appears in research in recent decades into how people think and make decisions, led by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for inventing many ways of documenting how people think. He's a psychologist, not an economist. He won the prize in economics for establishing that standard economics models of the “rational person” do not adequately describe how people actually think.

In particular, people make most decisions based on what comes most readily to mind -- the “fast thinking” in Kahneman's (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow.[32] Humans are capable of conscious deliberation, searching for alternative evidence, etc. -- Kahneman's “slow thinking”. However, we rarely do enough of that when we should. This has profound implications for understanding virtually every aspect of human behavior.

  • For example, in violent conflict, collateral damage that “they” commit proves to us that “they” are subhuman or at best criminally misled and must be resisted by any means necessary.
  • Meanwhile, collateral damage that we commit is unfortunate but necessary -- from our perspective. But, of course, it proves to “them” that we are subhuman or at best criminally misled, and must by resisted by any means necessary.[33]



The implications of this analysis of “The Great American Paradox” are substantial. Most obviously, it affects the inferences that potential revolutionaries everywhere might draw from US history. For example, how might the world be different today if more of the violent revolutionaries of the twentieth century tried to follow Gandhi rather than Washington?

This article also has more subtle implications for gun control and for foreign and defense policies of countries like the US. There are also implications for how media organizations should be funded and governed. Further discussions of these questions are beyond the scope of this article.


  • Erica Chenoweth; Maria J. Stephan (2011). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (in en). Columbia University Press. Wikidata Q88725216. ISBN 978-0-231-15683-7. . For their data see, Chenoweth, Erica, NAVCO Data Project, Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, retrieved 2017-03-17. For further discussion of this work, see Winning the War on Terror.


  1. David Graeber documented how people with power have established the rules to exalt themselves and impoverish and enslave everyone else, at least during the most recent 5,000 years. This pattern has occasionally been interrupted by revolts by peasants and slaves, after which the cycle begins anew. The growth of democracy, free press, and nonviolence have introduced nonviolent means that peasants and slaves are starting to use to effectively limit the predations by the powerful. See Greaber's Debt:The first 5,000 years.
  2. Gutiérrez Escudero, Antonio, ed. (2005), "6. Carta al general Juan José Flores, jefe del estado de Ecuador (Barranquilla, 9 de noviembre de 1830) [Letter to General Juan José Flores, head of state of Ecuador, Barranquilla, November 9, 1830]", Simón Bolívar: aproximación al pensamiento del Libertador (approximations to the thoughts of the liberator) (PDF) (in Spanish), Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos (CSIC), Sevilla, p. 12, retrieved 2017-11-06 In this quote, “This country” referred specifically to Columbia. However, his comment seems relevant to all of Latin America.
  3. Some might also add the basic expansionist character of the new nation and its relatively welcoming attitude toward immigrants. However, that expansionist character could be a result of the three points mentioned here rather than a direct contributor itself to the growth of the US. The famous term "manifest destiny" became fashionable only after it had already been achieved. It seems to have been coined in 1845 but "did not reflect the national spirit. The thesis that it embodied nationalism, found in much historical writing, is backed by little real supporting evidence", according to Merk, Frederick; Merk, Lois Bannister (1963), Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation, Harvard U. Pr., p. 215, ISBN 0674548051, retrieved 2017-11-19, cited from the Wikipedia article on "manifest destiny"
  4. Acemoglu and Robinson say that the English colonies in North America all initially failed until they switched from autocratic, extractive governance to a more democratic, inclusive political economy. Further South, the Spaniards encountered the Aztec and the Inca civilizations, which dominated neighboring tribes, demanding among other things human sacrifice to their gods. When a tiny number of Spanish arrived with guns and horses, it proved that the Aztec and Incas were not gods, and the neighboring tribes supported the Spanish, hoping for better life. That option was not available to the English colonies established further north. Daron Acemoğlu; James A. Robinson (20 March 2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (in en). Crown Publishing Group. Wikidata Q7997840. ISBN 0-307-71921-9. .
  5. Keyssar, Alexander (2000), The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Basic Books, pp. 7, 24, ISBN 0465005020; see also Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), Violence, Nonviolence, and the American Revolution (PDF), Wikidata Q58635938. Claims that the rebellious colonists learned democratic governance from the Iroquois confederation are controversial, as noted in the Wikipedia article on the Iroquois.
  6. Peter D. G. Thomas (2000) “The Grenville Program, 1763-1765, ch. 15 in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, A Companion to the American Revolution (Malden, MA: Blackwell). See also Eric Foner (1998) The Story of American Freedom (NY: Norton, esp. pp. 5-7). Cited from Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), Violence, Nonviolence, and the American Revolution (PDF), Wikidata Q58635938.
  7. Even the US Bill of Rights was not uniquely American: The common citizens of the brand new United States of American demanded that they retain the rights they had had under legal documents like the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which itself updated and secured rights English citizens had officially had since the Magna Carta of 1215. And the rights promised by the US Bill of Rights were too often only unenforceable words on paper until the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) initiated a program of litigation, activism and education following its founding in 1920.
  8. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)
  9. Washington insisted on civilian control of the military. He actively worked to suppress mutinies, noting that attempts to use military force to obtain needed money and supplies contradicted their reason for fighting. See, e.g., Glenn A. Phelps, “The Republican General”, ch. 7 in Don Higginbotham, ed. (2001), George Washington Reconsidered, University of Virginia Press, Wikidata Q59362787
  10. John E. Ferling (1988), The First of Men: A life of George Washington, University of Tennessee Press, Wikidata Q59297825, p. 170
  11. Gary B. Nash (2005), The Unknown American Revolution, Penguin Books, Wikidata Q59319726, pp. 344-345.
  12. Ray Raphael (2001). A People's History of the American Revolution (in en). The New Press. Wikidata Q102951790. ISBN 1-56584-653-2. , p. 89.
  13. "The Germain letters"; Clements Library, University of Michigan', cited in w:Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War#The Loyalist question.
  14. David K. Wilson (2005), The Southern Strategy: Britain's Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780, University of South Carolina Press, Wikidata Q59384214. Cited from w:Capture of Savannah.
  15. John Buchanan (1997), The Road to Guilford Courthouse, Wiley, Wikidata Q59394153, cited from w:Siege of Charleston and w:Battle of Camden.
  16. Terry Golway (2005), Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, Wikidata Q59402701 and other works cited in w:Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War and Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), Violence, Nonviolence, and the American Revolution (PDF), Wikidata Q58635938.
  17. Sarah Vowell (2015), Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Wikidata Q23763149, cited from w:Siege of Yorktown.
  18. Conser et al. (1986).
  19. Woody Holton (1999), Forced foundners: Indians, debtors, slaves, and the making of the American Revolution in Virginia, University of North Carolina Press, Wikidata Q59418433.
  20. On 2 Feb. 1774, Ben Franklin, then a lobbyist in London, wrote, “The violent destruction of the tea seems to have united all parties here against us.” Conser et al. (1986, p. 222). See also David L. Ammerman (1986). "24". The Tea Crisis and Its Consequences, through 1775 (in en). Wikidata Q106843214. ISBN 978-0-631-21058-0. .
  21. Ray Raphael (2002), The First American Revolution, The New Press, Wikidata Q59420225.
  22. Gary B. Nash (2005), The Unknown American Revolution, Penguin Books, Wikidata Q59319726
  23. This was in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (24 August 1815), The Works of John Adams; he later expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Hezekiah Niles (13 February 1818). Cited from Wikiquote:John Adams.
  24. Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), Violence, Nonviolence, and the American Revolution (PDF), Wikidata Q58635938
  25. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)
  26. In 1800 New Spain lost the Louisiana territory to France. A small portion of that is now part of Canada. In 1931 Mexico lost Clipperton Island to France.
  27. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)
  28. JD Thomas (11 February 2011). "The Postal Act: A Free Press, Personal Privacy and National Growth". Accessible Archives. Wikidata Q59426473. , cited from w:Postal Service Act.
  29. McChesney and Nichols (2016, p. 167).
  30. The impact of both corruption and education are discussed in the Wikiversity article on Winning the War on Terror, accessed 2018-12-04.
  31. Ray Raphael claims that the "First American Revolution" occurred in Massachusetts in 1774, as local farmers demanded the reinstatement of the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 with substantial success, after the British government had suspended it in response to the Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773. This "First American Revolution" was essentially nonviolent, involving in some locations half of the adult male population. See the section on the American Revolution in the Wikipedia article on Ray Raphael as well as Ray Raphael (2002), The First American Revolution, The New Press, Wikidata Q59420225. This is consistent with the conclusions of Chenoweth and Stephan from their inventory of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century. Only a quarter, 25 percent, of the violent revolutions they identified were successful vs. 53 precent of the nonviolent campaigns. More importantly, 5 and 10 years after the end of the conflict, the impact on democracy from violent revolutions were on average negligible. Meanwhile, nonviolent campaigns, win or lose, tended to improve the level of democratization. See the Wikiversity articles in Effective defense and Effective defense and ISIL, and the literature cited therein.
  32. Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, OCLC 706020998, OL 15992072W, Wikidata Q983718
  33. For an expanded discussion of the role of collateral damage in the evolution of conflict, see Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), The Impact of Violent and Nonviolent Action on Constructed Realities and Conflict (PDF),, Wikidata Q58635572. For an expanded discussion of these principles in the context of the American Revolution, see Spencer Graves (26 February 2005), Violence, Nonviolence, and the American Revolution (PDF), Wikidata Q58635938.