The Most Successful Revolution


In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky says that the spirit of the Antichrist, in its modern incarnation, will flaunt the banner “First feed people, and then ask of them virtue.” This has, in an amended form, indeed become the cardinal and utterly conventional thesis of modern politics. The amended form reads “First make people prosperous, and then ask of them virtue.” Whatever reservations one might have about Dostoevsky’s original thesis, this revised version is, in the perspective of the Judeo-Christian tradition, unquestionably a blasphemy. It is also, in the perspective of the American political tradition, a malicious and inherently self-defeating doctrine—self-defeating because those who proclaim it obviously have lost all sense of what virtue, religious or political, means. Nevertheless, practically all of us today find it an inherently plausible doctrine, a staple of our political discourse. This being the case, it is only natural that we ourselves should have such difficulty understanding the American political tradition and that when we expound it to the world, we distort it in all sorts of ways that will make it more palatable to the prejudices of the modern political mentality.


It would not be fair to conclude that the American political tradition is flawless and that it is only we—its heirs—who are to blame for the many problems our society is grappling with, with such notable ineptitude. The American Revolution was a successful revolution, but there is no such thing, either in one’s personal life or in a nation’s history, as unambiguous success. The legacy of the American Revolution, and of the entire political tradition associated with it, is problematic in all sorts of ways. Strangely enough, we have such an imperfect understanding of this tradition that even as we vulgarize it or question it or disregard it, we rarely address ourselves to its problematic quality.

The major problematic aspect of this tradition has to do with the relationship of the “citizen” to the “common man.” And the difficulties we have in defining this relationship are best illustrated by the fact that though we have been a representative democracy for two centuries now, we have never developed an adequate theory of representation. More precisely, we have developed two contradictory theories of representation, both of which can claim legitimacy within the American political tradition and both of which were enunciated—often by the same people—during the Revolution. The one sees the public official as a “common man” who has a mandate to reflect the opinions of the majority; the other sees the public official as a somewhat uncommon man—a more-than-common man, if you will—who because of his talents and character is able to take a larger view of the public interest than the voters who elected him or the voters who failed to defeat him. One might say that the first is a democratic view of the legislator, the second a republican view. The American political tradition has always had a kind of double vision on this whole problem, which in turn makes for a bewildering moral confusion. Half the time we regard our politicians as, in the nature of things, probably corrupt and certainly untrustworthy; the other half of the time we denounce them for failing to be models of integrity and rectitude. Indeed, we have a profession—journalism—that seems committed to both of these attitudes. But politicians are pretty much like the rest of us and tend to become the kinds of people they are expected to be. The absence of clear and distinct expectations has meant that public morality in this country has never been, and is not, anything we can be proud of.

In a way the ambiguity in our theory of representation points to a much deeper ambiguity in that system of selfgovernment which emerged from the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. That system has been perceptively titled, by Professor Martin Diamond, “a démocratie republic.” Now, we tend to think of these terms as nearsynonyms, but in fact they differ significantly in their political connotations. Just how significant the difference is becomes clear if we realize that the America which emerged from the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention was the first democratic republic in history. Political philosophers at that time could study the history of republics, and they could study the history of democracies, but there was no opportunity for them to study both together. When the Pounding Fathers declared that they had devised a new kind of political entity, based on “a new science of politics,” they were not vainly boasting or deceiving themselves. It is we, their political descendants, who tend to be unaware of the novelty of the American political enterprise and of the risks and ambiguities inherent in that novelty. We simplify and vulgarize and distort because we have lost the sense of how bold and innovative the Founding Fathers were and how problematic—necessarily problematic—is the system of government, and the society, that they established. Witness the fact that, incredibly enough, at our major universities it is almost impossible to find a course—graduate or undergraduate—devoted to The Federalist Papers .