The Most Successful Revolution

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Hannah Arendt, in her very profound book On Revolution , to which I am much indebted, has written: ”… Revolutionary political thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has proceeded as though there never had occurred a revolution in the New World and as though there never had been any American notions and experiences in the realm of politics and government worth thinking about.” And it is certainly indisputable that the world, when it contemplates the events of 1776 and after, is inclined to see the American Revolution as a French Revolution that never quite came off—whereas the Founding Fathers thought they had cause to regard the French Revolution as an American Revolution that had failed. Indeed, the differing estimates of these two revolutions are definitive of one’s political philosophy in the modern world: there are two conflicting conceptions of politics, in relation to the human condition, which are symbolized by these two revolutions. There is no question that the French Revolution is, in some crucial sense, the more “modern” of the two. There is a question, however, as to whether it is a good or bad thing to be modern in this sense.

It is noteworthy that up until about fifteen years ago most American historians of this century tended to look at the American Revolution through non-American eyes. They saw it as essentially an abortive and incomplete revolution, in comparison with the French model. But more recently historians have become much more respectful toward the American Revolution, and the work (for example) of Bernard Bailyn, Edmund S, Morgan, Caroline Robbins, and Gordon S. Wood is revealing to us again the truth of what the Founding Fathers had, in their day, insisted on: that the American Revolution was an extremely interesting event, rich in implication for any serious student of politics. These historians have rediscovered for us the intellectual dimensions of the American Revolution, and it is fair to say that we are now in a position to appreciate just how extraordinarily self-conscious and reflective a revolution it was.

Every revolution unleashes tides of passion, and the American Revolution was no exception. But it was exceptional in the degree to which it was able to subordinate these passions to serious and nuanced thinking about fundamental problems of political philosophy. The pamphlets, sermons, and newspaper essays of the Revolutionary period—only now being reprinted and carefully studied—were extraordinarily academic, in the best sense of that term. Which is to say, they were learned and thoughtful and generally sober in tone. This was a revolution infused by mind to a degree never approximated since and perhaps never approximated before. By mind, not by dogma. The most fascinating aspect of the American Revolution is the severe way it kept questioning itself about the meaning of what it was doing. Enthusiasm there certainly was—a revolution is impossible without enthusiasm—but this enthusiasm was tempered by doubt, introspection, anxiety, skepticism. This may strike us as a very strange state of mind in which to make a revolution; and yet it is evidently the right state of mind for making a successful revolution. That we should have any difficulty in seeing this tells us something about the immaturity of our own political imagination—an immaturity not all incompatible with what we take to be sophistication.

Just a few weeks ago one of our most prominent statesmen remarked to an informal group of political scientists that he had been reading The Federalist Papers and he was astonished to see how candidly our Founding Fathers could talk about the frailties of human nature and the necessity for a political system to take such frailties into account. It was not possible, he went on to observe, for anyone active in American politics today to speak publicly in this way: he would be accused of an imperfect democratic faith in the common man. Well, the Founding Fathers for the most part, and most of the time, subscribed to such an “imperfect” faith. They understood that republican selfgovernment could not exist if humanity did not possess—at some moments, and to a fair degree—the traditional “republican virtues” of self-control, self-reliance, and a disinterested concern for the public good. They also understood that these virtues did not exist everywhere, at all times, and that there was no guarantee of their natural preponderance. As James Madison put it:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.