The Most Successful Revolution


Despite the fact that Christian traditions are still strong in this country, it is hard to imagine any public figure casually admitting, as Madison did in his matter-of-fact way, that “there is a degree of depravity in mankind” which statesmen must take account of. We have become unaccustomed to such candid and unflattering talk about ourselves—which is, I suppose, only another way of saying that we now think democratic demagoguery to be the only proper rhetorical mode of address as between government and people in a republic. The idea, so familiar to the Puritans and still very much alive during our Revolutionary era, that a community of individual sinners could, under certain special conditions, constitute a good community—just as a congregation of individual sinners could constitute a good church—is no longer entirely comprehensible to us. We are therefore negligent about the complicated ways in which this transformation takes place and uncomprehending as to the constant, rigorous attentiveness necessary for it to take place at all. The Founders thought that self-government was a chancy and demanding enterprise and that successful government in a republic was a most difficult business. We, in contrast, believe that republican self-government is an easy affair, that it need only be instituted for it to work on its own, and that when such government falters, it must be as a consequence of personal incompetence or malfeasance by elected officials. Perhaps nothing reveals better than these different perspectives the intellectual distance we have travelled from the era of the Revolution. We like to think we have “progressed” along this distance. The approaching bicentennial is an appropriate occasion for us to contemplate the possibility that such “progress,” should it continue, might yet be fatal to the American polity.


In what sense can the American Revolution be called a successful revolution? And if we agree that it was successful, why was it successful? These questions are anything but academic. Indeed, I believe that as one explores them one finds oneself constrained to challenge a great many preconceptions, not only about the nature of revolution, but about the nature of politics itself, which most of us today take for granted.

To begin at the beginning: the American Revolution was successful in that those who led it were able, in later years, to look back in tranquillity at what they had wrought and to say that it was good. This was a revolution that, unlike all subsequent revolutions, did not devour its children: the men who made the revolution were the men who went on to create the new political order, who then held the highest elective positions in this order, and who all died in bed. Not very romantic, perhaps; indeed positively prosaic; but it is this very prosaic quality of the American Revolution that testifies to its success. It is the pathos and poignancy of unsuccessful revolutions that excite the poetic temperament; statesmanship that successfully accomplishes its business is a subject more fit for prose. Alone among the revolutions of modernity the American Revolution did not give rise to the pathetic and poignant myth of “the revolution betrayed.” It spawned no literature of disillusionment; it left behind no grand hopes frustrated, no grand expectations unsatisfied, no grand illusions shattered. Indeed, in one important respect the American Revolution was so successful as to be almost self-defeating: it turned the attention of thinking men away from politics, which now seemed utterly unproblematic, so that political theory lost its vigor, and even the political thought of the Founding Fathers was not seriously studied. The American political tradition became an inarticulate tradition: it worked so well we did not bother to inquire why it worked, and we are therefore intellectually disarmed before those moments when it suddenly seems not to be working so well after all.

The American Revolution was also successful in another important respect: it was a mild and relatively bloodless revolution. A war was fought, to be sure, and soldiers died in that war; but the rules of civilized warfare, as then established, were for the most part quite scrupulously observed by both sides—there was little of the butchery that we have come to accept as a natural concomitant of revolutionary warfare. More important, there was practically none of the off-battlefield savagery that we now assume to be inevitable in revolutions. There were no revolutionary tribunals dispensing “revolutionary justice”; there was no reign of terror; there were no bloodthirsty proclamations by the Continental Congress. Tories were dispossessed of their property, to be sure, and many were rudely hustled off into exile; but so far as I have been able to determine, not a single Tory was executed for harboring counterrevolutionary opinions. Nor, in the years after the Revolution, were Tories persecuted to any significant degree (at least by today’s standards) or their children discriminated against at all. As Tocqueville later remarked, with only a little exaggeration, the Revolution “contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy, but its course was marked, on the contrary, by a love of order and law.”