- Historic Sites
The Most Successful Revolution
WHAT IS THERE TO CELEBRATE?
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
In short, the Revolution reshaped our political institutions in such a way as to make them more responsive to popular opinion and less capable of encroaching upon the personal liberties of the citizen—liberties that long antedated the new constitutions and that in no way could be regarded as the creation or consequence of revolution. Which is to say that the purpose of this revolution was to bring our political institutions into a more perfect correspondence with an actual American way of life that no one even dreamed of challenging. This restructuring, as we should now call it, because it put the possibility of republican selfgovernment once again on the political agenda of Western civilization, was terribly exciting, to Europeans as well as Americans. But for the Americans involved in this historic task it was also terribly frightening. It is fair to say that no other revolution in modern history made such relatively modest innovations with such an acute sense of anxiety. The Founding Fathers were well aware that if republicanism over the centuries had become such a rare form of government, there must be good reasons behind this fact. Republican government, they realized, must be an exceedingly difficult regime to maintain—it must have grave inherent problems. And so they were constantly scurrying to their libraries, ransacking classical and contemporary political authors, trying to discover why republics (ail, and endeavoring to construct a new political science relevant to American conditions that would give this new republic a fair chance of succeeding. That new political science was eventually to be embodied in The Federalist Papers , the only original work of political theory ever produced by a revolution and composed by successful revolutionaries. And the fact that very few of us have ever felt the need seriously to study The Federalist Papers , and that Europeans—or in our own day Asians and Africans—have barely heard of them, tells us how inadequately we understand the American Revolution and how distant the real American Revolution has become from the idea of revolution by which we moderns are now possessed.
This idea of revolution, as observed above, is what Dr. Arendt calls rebellion. Its spirit is the spirit of undiluted, enthusiastic, free-floating messianism: it will be satisfied with nothing less than a radical transformation of the human condition. It is an idea and a movement that is both metapolitical and subpolitical—above and below politics—because it finds the political realm itself too confining for its ambitions. Metapolitically it is essentially a religious phenomenon, seized with the perennial promise of redemption. Subpolitically it is an expression of the modern technological mentality, confident of its power to control and direct all human processes as we have learned to control and direct the processes of nature. Inevitably its swollen pride and fanatical temper lead to tragic failure. But precisely because of this pride and this fanaticism, failure leads only to partial and temporary disillusionment. When this kind of revolution gets “betrayed”—which is to say, when the consequences of revolution lose all congruence with its original purpose—the true revolutionary believer will still look forward to a second coming of the authentic and unbetrayable revolution.
The French Revolution was the kind of modern revolution I have been describing; the American Revolution was not. It is because of this, one supposes, that the French Revolution has captured the imagination of other peoples —has become indeed the model of “real” revolution—in a way that the American Revolution has not been able to do. The French Revolution promised not only a reformation of France’s political institutions but far more than that. It promised, for instance—as practically all revolutions have promised since—the abolition of poverty. The American Revolution promised no such thing, in part because poverty was not such a troublesome issue in this country, but also, one is certain, because the leaders of this revolution understood what their contemporary Adam Smith understood and what we today have some difficulty in understanding: namely, that poverty is abolished by economic growth, not by economic redistribution—there is never enough to distribute—and that rebellions, by creating in stability and uncertainty, have mischievous consequences for economic growth. Similarly, the French Revolution promised a condition of “happiness” to its citizens under the new regime, whereas the American Revolution promised merely to permit the individual to engage in the “pursuit of happiness.”