The Most Successful Revolution

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One does not want to make the American Revolution a more prosaic affair than it was. This was a revolution—a real one—and it was infused with a spirit of excitement and innovation. After all, what the American Revolution was trying to do, once it got under way, was no small thing. It was nothing less than the establishment, for the first time since ancient Rome, of a large republican nation; and the idea of re-establishing under modern conditions the glory that had been Rome’s could hardly fail to be intoxicating. This revolution did indeed have grand—even millenial—expectations as to the future role of this new nation in both the political imagination and the political history of the human race. But certain things have to be said about these large expectations if we are to see them in proper perspective.

The main thing to be said is that the millenarian tradition in America long antedates the Revolution and is not intertwined with the idea of revolution itself. It was the Pilgrim Fathers, not the Founding Fathers, who first announced that this was God’s country, that the American people had a divine mission to accomplish, that this people had been “chosen” to create some kind of model community for the rest of mankind. This belief was already so firmly established by the time of the Revolution that it was part and parcel of our political orthodoxy, serving to legitimate an existing “American way of life” and most of the institutions associated with that way of life. It was a radical belief in the sense of being bold and challenging and because this new way of life was so strikingly different from the lives that common people were then living in Europe. It was not a revolutionary belief. Crèvecoeur’s famous paean of praise to “this new man, the American” was written well before the Revolution; and Crèvecoeur, in fact, opposed the American Revolution as foolish and unnecessary.

To this traditional niillenarianism the Revolution added the hope that the establishment of republican institutions would inaugurate a new and happier political era for all mankind. This hope was frequently expressed enthusiastically, in a kind of messianic rhetoric, but the men of the Revolution —most of them, most of the time—did not permit themselves to become bewitched by that rhetoric. Thus, though they certainly saw republicanism as the wave of the future, both Jefferson and Adams in the 1780’s agreed that the French people were still too “depraved,” as they so elegantly put it, to undertake an experiment in self-government. Self-government, as they understood it, presupposed a certain way of life, and this in turn presupposed certain qualities on the part of the citizenry—qualities then designated as republican virtues—that would make self-government possible.

Similarly, though one can find a great many publicists during the Revolution who insisted that, with the severance of ties from Britain, the colonies had reverted to a Lockean “state of nature” and were now free to make a new beginning for all mankind and to create a new political order that would mark a new stage in human history—though such assertions were popular enough, it would be a mistake to take them too seriously. The fact is that Americans had encountered their state of nature generations earlier and had made their social compact at that time. The primordial American social contract was signed and sealed on the Mayflower —literally signed and sealed. The subsequent presence of all those signatures appended to the Declaration of Independence, beginning with John Hancock, are but an echo of the original covenant.

To perceive the true purposes of the American Revolution it is wise to ignore some of the more grandiloquent declamations of the moment—Tom Paine, an English radical who never really understood America, is especially worth ignoring—and to look at the kinds of political activity the Revolution unleashed. This activity took the form of constitution making, above all. In the months and years immediately following the Declaration of Independence all of our states drew up constitutions. These constitutions are terribly interesting in three respects. First, they involved relatively few basic changes in existing political institutions and almost no change at all in legal, social, or economic institutions. Second, most of the changes that were instituted had the evident aim of weakening the power of government, especially of the executive; it was these changes—and especially the strict separation of powers—that dismayed Turgot, Condorcet, and the other French philosophes, who understood revolution as an expression of the people’s will to power rather than as an attempt to circumscribe political authority. Third, in no case did any of these state constitutions tamper with the traditional system of local self-government; indeed they could not, since it was this traditional system of local self-government that created and legitimized the constitutional conventions themselves.