The Most Influential Characters in the American Revolution

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Printing press had an undeniable but surprising role in the American Revolution. Thomas Paine never thought his pamphlet would inspire so many influential characters in the American Revolution. By stopping the only military coup in American history with only one sentence, George Washington proved his aptness for being the first American president.

General George Washington, Major George Ross, Robert Morris, and Betsy Ross with the first American flag, approved by Congress on June 14, 1777.
George Washington is one of the first figures that come to mind when the American Revolution is discussed. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The American Revolution did not aim at complete separation from Britain, but the course of its events resulted in American independence. Many influential characters made that happen.

Thomas Paine, the British Political Protestor

In January 1776, after the acts and taxes that enraged people and colonists, Thomas Paine changed history by publishing Common Sense. He argued for American nationhood and national identity, and also urged independence from the British Empire.

Paine was not a religious person but was still impressed by the Great Awakening. Thus, he used religion to tell Americans that their independence brought human liberty worldwide, arguing that royalty was a form of idolatry. The simple text of the pamphlet made its reach and effect significant among the American colonies. It even inspired Thomas Jefferson.

Learn more about 1787-the American experiment.

Statue of Thomas Paine author of The Rights of Man in Thetford, Norfolk, England, UK.
Thomas Paine ignited the huge flame of revolution by his pamphlet, Common Sense.
(Image: Graham Corney/Shutterstock)

Thomas Jefferson and Declaration of Independence

In July 1776, Thomas Jefferson authored a Declaration of Independence, later accepted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It explained self-evident truths of equality and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It also pointed out that governments were established among humankind by the consent of the governed to secure those rights. Thus, when those rights are violated, the right of the people is to institute a new government.

His reasoning is rooted in John Locke’s 1690 text, Two Treatises of Government. Locke believed in a conditional mutual contract between people and the government, where the rights of individuals must be respected.

However, not all the colonists agreed with the statement, and they were divided into three groups: in favor of independence, loyal to the Crown, and one-third trying to stay out of the conflict. The war with the British, on the other hand, continued.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Winning the War

Washington kept the independence army a victor against the British, using his personality. Many Europeans came forward to support the Americans to crush Britain. Notable among them was, Marquis de Lafayette. France still remembered the pain of defeat in the Seven Years’ War. After the 1777 victory, he could get more support from France for Washington.

France signed an alliance with the Americans, later joined by other rivals of Britain from Europe, such as Spain and the Dutch Republic. The alliance worked well, and American forces finally trapped the British at Yorktown in 1781. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

George Washington and His Influence

After the war, the only military coup in America began. American officers were mad as the Congress had not paid their back pay, and some of them even began to plot to seize control. Washington traveled to the camp of those officers in Newburgh, New York, to passionately counsel them not to revolt and to remain loyal. The officers were not convinced until Washington decided to read a letter from the Congressmen promising help to the officers.

General George Washington taking leave of the officers of his army, December 4, 1783, lithograph by Nathaniel Currier published in 1848.
Washington’s personality was the strongest point for him, which made him popular among the passes. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

As he was pulling out his spectacles, he said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This one sentence stopped the coup immediately.

The next challenge was building a new nation. Some colonists hoped that Washington would become the American king, but he resigned his military duties in December of 1783. It was such an impressive act that the British king George III reacted to it with, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Learn more about the beginning of the American Revolution.

The First American President

The thirteen sovereign states were heavily disunited, due to the weak Articles of Confederation. The chaos was depicted in Shays’s Rebellion – a farmer’s revolt in New York – making everyone feel the need for a new model.

In 1787, in Philadelphia, a new constitution was drafted, with Washington being unanimously chosen to preside over the convention. A new framework was born of the discussions, under the intellectual leadership of James Madison of Virginia. Everyone agreed on a government of laws, not men.

Two other outcomes were the creation of a House of Representatives – on the principle of representation by population, and a Senate where each state had equal votes. Conclusively, in 1789, a federal system was formed with three branches of government sharing the power, decentralizing authority. The Bill of Rights was established, and after much debate over the title of the president, Washington was officially appointed as President of the United States.

Common Questions about Influential Characters in the American Revolution

Q: Who was the most influential person of the American Revolution?

Thomas Paine turned into one of the most influential characters in the American Revolution after publishing his pamphlet, Common Sense.

Q: Who was the hero of the American Revolution?

The short answer is George Washington. He was among the top influential characters in the American Revolution.

Q: Who organized the American Revolution?

On May 10, 1775, George Washington was elected commander of the patriotic forces to fight the British troops. Their defense of American liberty and identity resulted in independence.

Q: Who inspired the American Revolution?

John Locke developed the base for the Declaration of Independence with his writings, inspiring Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries.

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