The Most Successful Revolution

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As we approach the bicentennial of the American Revolution we find ourselves in a paradoxical and embarrassing situation. A celebration of some kind certainly seems to be in order, but the urge to celebrate is not exactly overwhelming. Though many will doubtless ascribe this mood to various dispiriting events of the recent past or to an acute public consciousness of present problems, I think this would be a superficial judgment. The truth is that for several decades now there has been a noticeable loss of popular interest in the Revolution, both as a historic event and as a political symbol. The idea and very word, “revolution,” are in good repute today; the American Revolution is not. We are willing enough, on occasion, to pick up an isolated phrase from the Declaration of Independence or a fine declamation from a Founding Father—Jefferson, usually—and use these to point up the shortcomings of American society as it now exists. Which is to say, we seem to be prompt to declare that the Revolution was a success only when it permits us to assert glibly that we have subsequently failed it. But this easy exercise in self-indictment, though useful in some respects, is on the whole a callow affair. It doesn’t tell us, for instance, whether there is an important connection between that successful revolution and our subsequent delinquencies. It merely uses the Revolution for rhetoricalpolitical purposes, making no serious effort at either understanding it or understanding ourselves. One even gets the impression that many of us regard ourselves as too sophisticated to take the Revolution seriously—that we see it as one of those naive events of our distant childhood which we have since long outgrown but which we are dutifully reminded of, at certain moments of commemoration, by insistent relatives less liberated from the past than we.

I think I tan make this point most emphatically by asking the simple question: what ever happened to George Washington? He used to be a Very Important Person—indeed, the most important person in our history. Our history books used to describe him, quite simply, as the Father of his Country, and in the popular mind he was a larger-than-life figure to whom piety and reverence were naturally due. In the past fifty years, however, this figure has been radically diminished in size and virtually emptied of substance. In part, one supposes, this is because piety is a sentiment we seem less and less capable of, and most especially piety toward fathers. We are arrogant and condescending toward all ancestors because we are so convinced we understand them better than they understood themselves—whereas piety assumes that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves. And reverence, too, is a sentiment that we, in our presumption, find somewhat unnatural. Woodrow Wilson, like most Progressives of his time, complained about the “blind worship” of the Constitution by the American people; no such complaint is likely to be heard today. We debate whether or not we should obey the laws of the land, whereas for George Washington —and Lincoln, too, who in his lifetime reasserted this point most eloquently—obedience to law was not enough: they thought that Americans, as citizens of a self-governing polity, ought to have reverence for their laws. Behind this belief, of course, was the premise that the collective wisdom incarnated in our laws—and especially in the fundamental law of the Constitution—understood us better than any one of us could ever hope to understand it. Having separated ourselves from our historic traditions, and no longer recognizing the power inherent in tradition itself, we find this traditional point of view close to incomprehensible.

Equally incomprehensible to us is the idea that George Washington was the central figure in a real, honest-to-God revolution—the first significant revolution of the modern era and one that can lay claim to being the only truly successful revolution, on a large scale, in the past two centuries. In his own lifetime no one doubted that he was the central figure of that revolution; subsequent generations did not dispute the fact; our textbooks, until about a quarter of a century ago, took it for granted, albeit in an ever more routine and unconvincing way. We today, in contrast, find it hard to take George Washington seriously as a successful revolutionary. He just doesn’t fit our conception of what a revolutionary leader is supposed to be like. It is a conception that easily encompasses Robespierre, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, or Fidel Castro—but can one stretch it to include a gentleman like George Washington? And so we tend to escape from that dilemma by deciding that the American Revolution was not an authentic revolution at all, but rather some kind of pseudorevolution, which is why it could be led by so unrevolutionary a character as George Washington.