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The Most Successful Revolution

May 2024
25min read


As we approach the bicentennial of the American Revolution we find ourselves in a paradoxical and embarrassing situation. A celebration of some kind certainly seems to be in order, but the urge to celebrate is not exactly overwhelming. Though many will doubtless ascribe this mood to various dispiriting events of the recent past or to an acute public consciousness of present problems, I think this would be a superficial judgment.

The truth is that for several decades now there has been a noticeable loss of popular interest in the Revolution, both as a historic event and as a political symbol. The idea and very word, “revolution,” are in good repute today; the American Revolution is not. We are willing enough, on occasion, to pick up an isolated phrase from the Declaration of Independence or a fine declamation from a Founding Father — Jefferson, usually — and use these to point up the shortcomings of American society as it now exists. Which is to say, we seem to be prompt to declare that the Revolution was a success only when it permits us to assert glibly that we have subsequently failed it.

But this easy exercise in self-indictment, though useful in some respects, is on the whole a callow affair. It doesn’t tell us, for instance, whether there is an important connection between that successful revolution and our subsequent delinquencies. It merely uses the Revolution for rhetorical-political purposes, making no serious effort at either understanding it or understanding ourselves.

One even gets the impression that many of us regard ourselves as too sophisticated to take the Revolution seriously — that we see it as one of those naive events of our distant childhood which we have since long outgrown but which we are dutifully reminded of, at certain moments of commemoration, by insistent relatives less liberated from the past than we.

I think I can make this point most emphatically by asking the simple question: what ever happened to George Washington? He used to be a Very Important Person — indeed, the most important person in our history. Our history books used to describe him, quite simply, as the Father of his Country, and in the popular mind he was a larger-than-life figure to whom piety and reverence were naturally due. In the past fifty years, however, this figure has been radically diminished in size and virtually emptied of substance. In part, one supposes, this is because piety is a sentiment we seem less and less capable of, and most especially piety toward fathers.

We are arrogant and condescending toward all ancestors because we are so convinced we understand them better than they understood themselves — whereas piety assumes that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves. And reverence, too, is a sentiment that we, in our presumption, find somewhat unnatural. Woodrow Wilson, like most Progressives of his time, complained about the “blind worship” of the Constitution by the American people; no such complaint is likely to be heard today. We debate whether or not we should obey the laws of the land, whereas for George Washington — and Lincoln, too, who in his lifetime reasserted this point most eloquently—obedience to law was not enough: they thought that Americans, as citizens of a self-governing polity, ought to have reverence for their laws.

Behind this belief, of course, was the premise that the collective wisdom incarnated in our laws — and especially in the fundamental law of the Constitution — understood us better than any one of us could ever hope to understand it. Having separated ourselves from our historic traditions, and no longer recognizing the power inherent in tradition itself, we find this traditional point of view close to incomprehensible.

Equally incomprehensible to us is the idea that George Washington was the central figure in a real, honest-to-God revolution—the first significant revolution of the modern era and one that can lay claim to being the only truly successful revolution, on a large scale, in the past two centuries. In his own lifetime no one doubted that he was the central figure of that revolution; subsequent generations did not dispute the fact; our textbooks, until about a quarter of a century ago, took it for granted, albeit in an ever more routine and unconvincing way.

We today, in contrast, find it hard to take George Washington seriously as a successful revolutionary. He just doesn’t fit our conception of what a revolutionary leader is supposed to be like. It is a conception that easily encompasses Robespierre, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, or Fidel Castro—but can one stretch it to include a gentleman like George Washington? And so we tend to escape from that dilemma by deciding that the American Revolution was not an authentic revolution at all, but rather some kind of pseudo-revolution, which is why it could be led by so unrevolutionary a character as George Washington.

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 self-government 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.

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.”

A law-and-order revolution? What kind of revolution is that, we ask ourselves? To which many will reply that it could not have been much of a revolution, after all — at best a shadow of the real thing, which is always turbulent and bloody and shattering of body and soul. Well, the possibility we have to consider is that it was successful precisely because it wasn’t that kind of revolution and that it is we rather than the. American revolutionaries who have an erroneous conception of what a revolution is.

Dr. Arendt makes an important distinction between rebellion and revolution, and by her criteria the French and Russian revolutions should more properly be called rebellions, whereas only the American Revolution is worthy of the name. A rebellion is a metapolitical event, emerging out of a radical dissatisfaction with the human condition as experienced by the mass of the people, demanding instant liberation from this condition, an immediate transformation of all social and economic circumstance, a prompt achievement of an altogether “better life” in an altogether “better world.”

The spirit of rebellion is a spirit of desperation — a desperate rejection of whatever exists, a desperate aspiration toward some kind of Utopia. A rebellion is more a sociological event than a political action; it is governed by a blind momentum that sweeps everything before it, and its so-called leaders are in fact its captives and ultimately its victims. The modern world knows many such rebellions, and all end up as one version or another of “a revolution betrayed.” The so-called betrayal is, in fact, nothing but the necessary conclusion of a rebellion. Since its impossible intentions are unrealizable, and since its intense desperation will not be satisfied with anything less than impossible intentions, the end result is always a regime that pretends to embody these intentions and that enforces such false pretensions by terror.

A revolution, in contrast, is a political phenomenon. It aims to revise and reorder the political arrangements of a society and is therefore the work of the political ego rather than of the political id. A revolution is a practical exercise in political philosophy, not an existential spasm of the social organism. It requires an attentive prudence, a careful calculation of means and ends, a spirit of sobriety — the kind of spirit exemplified by that calm, legalistic document the Declaration of Independence.

All this is but another way of saying that a successful revolution cannot be governed by the spirit of the mob. Mobs and mob actions there will always be in a revolution, but if this revolution is not to degenerate into a rebellion, mob actions must be marginal to the central political drama. It may sound paradoxical, but it nevertheless seems to be the case that only a self-disciplined people can dare undertake so radical a political enterprise as a revolution. This is almost like saying that a successful revolution must be accomplished by a people who want it but do not desperately need it. One may even put the case more strongly: a successful revolution is best accomplished by a people who do not really want it at all but find themselves reluctantly making it. The American Revolution was exactly such a reluctant revolution.

The present-day student of revolutions will look in vain for any familiar kind of revolutionary situation in the American colonies prior to ’76. The American people at that moment were the most prosperous in the world and lived under the freest institutions to be found anywhere in the world. They knew this well enough and boasted of it often enough. Their quarrel with the British Crown was, in its origins, merely over the scope of colonial self-government, and hardly anyone saw any good reason why this quarrel should erupt into a war of independence. It was only after this war got under way that the American people decided that this was a good opportunity to make a revolution as well — that is, to establish a republican form of government.

Republican and quasi-republican traditions had always been powerful in the colonies, which were populated to such a large degree by religious dissenters who were sympathetic to the ideas incorporated in Cromwell’s commonwealth. Moreover, American political institutions from the very beginning were close to republican in fact — this was especially true of the Puritan communities of New England. Still, it is instructive to note that the word “republic” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence. Not that there was any real thought of reinstituting a monarchy in the New World — no one took such a prospect seriously. It was simply that, reluctant and cautious revolutionaries as they were, the Founding Fathers saw no need to press matters further than they had to at that particular moment. To put it bluntly: they did not want events to get out of hand and saw no good reason to provoke more popular turbulence than was absolutely necessary.

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 millennial — 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.

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 self-government 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 sub-political — 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. Sub-politically 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.”

It should not he surprising, therefore, that in the war of ideologies that has engulfed the twentieth century the United States is at a disadvantage. This disadvantage does not flow from any weakness on our part; it is not, as some say, because we have forgotten our revolutionary heritage and therefore have nothing to say to a discontented and turbulent world. We have, indeed, much to say, only it is not what our contemporaries want to hear — it is not even what we ourselves want to hear, and in that sense it may be correct to claim we have forgotten our revolutionary heritage.

Our revolutionary message — and it is a message, not of the Revolution itself, but of the American political tradition from the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — is that a self-disciplined people can create a political community in which an ordered liberty will promote both economic prosperity and political participation. To the teeming masses of other nations the American political tradition says: to enjoy the fruits of self-government you must first cease being “masses” and become a “people,” attached to a common way of life, sharing common values, and existing in a condition of mutual trust and sympathy as between individuals and even social classes. It is a distinctly odd kind of revolutionary message, by twentieth-century criteria — so odd that it seems not revolutionary at all, and yet so revolutionary that it seems utterly utopian.

What the twentieth century wants to hear is the grand things that a new government will do for the people who put their trust in it. What the American political tradition says is that the major function of government is to supervise the orderly arrangement of society and that a free people does not make a covenant or social contract with its government, or with the leaders of any “movement,” but among themselves.

In the end what informs the American political tradition is a proposition and a premise. The proposition is that the best national government is, to use a phrase the Founding Fathers were fond of, “mild government.” The premise is that you can only achieve mild government if you have a solid bedrock of local self-government, so that the responsibilities of national government are limited in scope. And a corollary of this premise is that such a bedrock of local self-government can only be achieved by a people who — through the shaping influence of religion, education, and their own daily experience — are capable of governing themselves in those small and petty matters which are the stuff’ of local politics.

Does this conception of politics have any relevance to the conditions in which people today live in large areas of the world—the so-called underdeveloped areas, especially? We are inclined, I think, to answer instinctively in the negative; but that answer may itself be a modern ideological prejudice. We take it for granted that if a people live in comparative poverty, they are necessarily incapable of the kind of self-discipline and sobriety that makes for effective self-government in their particular communities. Mind you, I am not talking about starving people, who are in a pre-political condition and whose problem is to get a strong and effective government of almost any kind. I am talking about comparatively poor people. And our current low estimate of the political capabilities of such people is an ideological assumption, not an objective fact.

Many of our frontier communities, at the time of the Revolution and for decades afterward, were poor by any standards; and yet this poverty was not, for the most part, inconsistent with active self-government. And there have been communities in Europe, too, that were very poor — not actually starving, of course, but simply very poor — yet were authentic political communities; the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof gave us a picture of such a community.

It is always better not to be so poor, but poverty need not be a pathological condition, and political pathology is not an inevitable consequence of poverty — just as political pathology is not inevitably abolished by prosperity. Poor people can cope with their poverty in many different ways; they are people, not sociological creatures; in the end they will cope as their moral and political convictions tell them to cope; and these convictions, in turn, will be formed by the expectations that their community addresses to them — expectations that they freely convert into obligations.

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 self-government 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 near-synonyms, 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 Founding 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.

What is the difference between a democracy and a republic? In a democracy the will of the people is supreme. In a republic it is not the will of the people but the rational consensus of the people — a rational consensus that is implicit in the term “consent” — which governs the people. That is to say, in a democracy popular passion may rule — it need not, but it may; in a republic popular passion is regarded as unfit to rule, and precautions are taken to see that is subdued rather than sovereign. In a democracy all politicians are, to some degree, demagogues: they appeal to people’s prejudices and passions, they incite their expectations by making reckless promises, they endeavor to ingratiate themselves with the electorate in every possible way. In a republic there are not supposed to be such politicians, only statesmen — sober, unglamorous, thoughtful men who are engaged in a kind of perpetual conversation with the citizenry.

In a republic a fair degree of equality and prosperity are important goals, but it is liberty that is given priority as the proper end of government. In a democracy these priorities are reversed: the status of men and women as consumers of economic goods is taken to be more significant than their status as participants in the creation of political goods. A republic is what we would call moralistic in its approach to both public and private affairs; a democracy is more easygoing, more permissive, as we now say, even more cynical.

The Founding Fathers perceived that their new nation was too large, too heterogeneous, too dynamic, too mobile for it to govern itself successfully along strict republican principles, and they had no desire at all to see it governed along strict democratic principles, since they did not have that much faith in the kinds of “common men” likely to be produced by such a nation. So they created a new form of popular government, to use one of their favorite terms, that incorporated both republican and democratic principles in a complicated and ingenious way. This system has lasted for two centuries, which means it has worked very well indeed. But in the course of that time we have progressively forgotten what kind of system it is and why it works as well as it does.

Every now and then, for instance, we furiously debate the question of whether or not the Supreme Court is meeting its obligations as a democratic institution. The question reveals a startling ignorance of our political tradition. The Supreme Court is not — and was never supposed to be — a democratic institution; it is a republican constitution that counterbalances the activities of our various democratic institutions. Yet I have discovered that when you say this to college students, they do not understand the distinction and even find it difficult to think about.

So it would seem that two hundred years after the American Revolution we are in a sense victims of its success. The political tradition out of which it issued, and the political order it helped to create, are imperfectly comprehended by us. What is worse, we are not fully aware of this imperfect comprehension and are frequently smug in our convenient misunderstandings. The American Revolution certainly merits celebration. But it would be reassuring if a part of that celebration were to consist, not merely of pious clichés, but of a serious and sustained effort to achieve a deeper and more widespread understanding of just what it is we are celebrating.

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