The problem with political revolutions is that, with a few exceptions,
they don't work. The history of Revolution contains a few
success stories, and dozens of failures.
The United States of America is a very lucky place. The first
democratic revolution in centuries occurred there, and it worked. A war
was fought, and then power passed in an orderly fashion from the King
to the new USA. There were relatively few reprisals, Thomas Hutchinson
aside. It seems to have been remarkably simple.
Only when we look in more detail do we see how near a thing this was.
Leaving aside the considerable probability of losing the war with
Britain, the USA was nearly killed several times in its infancy. George
Washington's troops, angry at Congress for not paying their salaries,
suggested to Washington that he make himself a dictator. Had he not
refused (and threatened to execute the officers making the suggestion
for treason if they ever brought it up again), American democracy would
have ended there and then. Later, Aaron Burr attempted to carve out
his own kingdom from the western part of the US. Again, had his communications
not been intercepted, an early fracturing might easily have kept the
new-formed America weak and easily reconquerable. The Civil War was a
final danger; the two major cultural groups which had united to defeat
King George III had never really gotten along, and the War between the
States was fought to determine whether or not they would remain cohesive.
The dangers that America narrowly avoided have been the ruin of most
democratic revolutions since. The French Revolution degenerated into mass
hysteria, mob rule, and dictatorship. The Russian Revolution, likewise,
was quickly subverted by Lenin. China had Mao.
Simon Bolivar's assorted South American revolutions all foundered on
the fact that South Americans, unacquainted with self-government, had
no idea what to do with freedom when they got it (mostly they elected
The Roundhead British Revolution under Oliver Cromwell set him up
as Lord Protector. He then attempted to pass the office to his son,
an act with clear suggestions of hereditary monarchy. It was not until
the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that a "revolution" (and a typically
calm, restrained, English one at that) would in Britain would bring
actually democratic improvement.
What happened in America that didn't happen in all those other places?
At this point we don't know, but we can identify several factors.
First, Americans had a tradition of self-government. This meant that
when they were granted independence, they knew how to govern themselves
and did it with only minor fuss. Compare to the abortive democracies of
America was an ocean away from its ruler. This meant
that most of the oppressors were simply unavailable to purge. Contrast
with France, where the aristocrats were right there in Paris to kill.
America failed to turn into a bloodbath because there was hardly anyone
around worth killing.
America had a low population density and almost no landless poor
(proletariat). This fact made it difficult to form a proper mob in
America; not enough people hanging around the cities with nothing to do.
The occasional mob did form (the Whiskey Rebellion), for example,
America by and large was ruled by its politicians.
Finally, we come to luck. America was lucky. We got Washington, and
Russia got Lenin. Nothing except Washington's own honor could have
stopped him from seizing power. Perhaps something about American
society produced Washington, something that could be repeated, but we
don't know what it was.
Other Ways to Get Democracy
Most of today's successful democracies came about not through bloody
revolutions, but through one of two other agencies: bloodless revolution
or externally enforced democracy.
The Indian revolution under Mahatma Gandhi is a key example of a bloodless
revolution. It was not precisely bloodless, but all the blood came from the
rebels. A successful campaign of passive resistance, conceived, led, and
symbolized by Gandhi, pressed the British into withdrawing. Of course,
this would have failed under bolder, more dictatorial oppressors, like
Nazi's or Stalinists, but it proved sufficient to establish Indian
independence. In India, there was no precedent of violent overthrow
to serve as an excuse for dictators. The British pulled out voluntarily,
leaving no opportunity for mob rule or execution of political enemies.
The Glorious Revolution was also a bloodless one. The change made was
so apparently small as to scarcely deserve the name of revolution, but it
was crucial: one king (William of Orange)was substituted for another (James II) at
the demand of Parliament. This meant that the (democratic) Parliament
had power over kings. After this limitation of the king, Britain
became less and less a monarchy and more and more a democracy. In Britain,
there was no single establishment of democracy; society grew more and more
democratic over the years.
Externally Enforced Democracy
In the past few centuries, conquest has begun to become
unfashionable. When a nation loses a war, it is no longer absorbed into
the conquering nation. Especially after WWI and WWII, nations had
their governments overthrown, but remained independent. Democracies
sprung up among these nations because the traditional rulers have been
removed but not replaced. Sometimes it works, as in the case of modern
Italy. Sometimes it doesn't, as in the case of Weimar Germany.