Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Was There an American Revolution?

Having just finished reading the books 1776 and John Adams by David McCullough, it became clear that the problems we have today are nothing new. While 1776 was an agonizing year of disappointment and profound suffering with Washington's rag tag army of yeoman farmers being constantly on the run from the British, it took another 6.5 years for the Revolution to end with the Treaty of Paris, albeit with more than a little help from the French Navy that managed to sail to the right place at precisely the time.

It's been said that at the time of the Revolution, a third of the American people were British loyalists, a third just didn't care either which way who ruled them and a third were more or less supportive of severing America's ties as a British colony. Washington became America's first president because he got the credit for winning the Revolution. There were no political parties but by the time the Constitution was written, those who led the Revolution were engaged in ferocious battles with each other as two sides emerged, the Federalists and the Republicans.

The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton and they sought a very strong federal government with  significant centralized powers.  The Republicans were led by Thomas Jefferson who abhorred federal powers and considered America to be a union of sovereign states and that most power should be vested with the states and not the federal government.  Jefferson greatly feared federal power which he rightfully perceived as the means erode liberty.

The Federalist were also strongly attached to Britain and many considered them to be loyalist loving royalists. Post Revolution, the Federalist sought to align America with Britain at the expense of France. Meanwhile the French were embroiled in their own hideous revolution that went horribly bad and resulted in the Reign of Terror and a bloodbath.

The Federalists were screaming for WAR with France. The French did become frightfully annoying and French ships were seizing US commercial ships and imprisoning sailors. John Adams, a Federalist, totally opposed war with France. Adams was definitely a closeted Republican at heart, at least to some degree, and he dreaded entangling America in a foreign war. In fact, the Federalists were furious with Adams because he refused to ask Congress for a Declaration of War against France because he knew he'd get it. Moreover, Adams greatly feared that Congress would simply declare war anyway. Through sheer cunning and perseverance, Adams managed to keep the warmongers at bay and his brilliant tenacity won the day, much to the chagrin of the rabid Federalists.

Hamilton was dubbed the aspiring American Napoleon by the Republicans because he sought empire as well as personal glory and power.  His untimely 1804 demise in the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel did in fact weaken the Federalists for a while.

Anyway, this very recent American Conservative piece by Robert Nisbit not only caught my eye but clearly put into focus a lot of things about America that have long tortured me.

Was There an American Revolution?
Was there in fact an American Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century? By this, I mean a revolution involving sudden, decisive, and irreversible changes in social institutions, groups, and traditions, in addition to the war of liberation from England that we are more likely to celebrate.

Clearly, this is a question that generates much controversy. There are scholars whose answer to the question is strongly negative. Indeed, ever since Edmund Burke’s time there have been students to declare that revolution in any precise sense of the word did not take place—that in substance the American Revolution was no more than a group of Englishmen fighting on distant shores for traditionally English political rights against a government that had sought to exploit and tyrannize. According to this argument, it was a war of restitution and liberation, not revolution; the outcome, one set of political governors replacing another. This view is widespread in our time and is found as often among ideological conservatives as among liberals and radicals.

At the opposite extreme is the view that a full-blown revolution did indeed take place. This is clearly what John Adams believed: “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” And Samuel Adams, more radical in ideology and hence more demanding in defining revolution, asked rhetorically, “Was there ever a revolution brought about, especially one so important as this, without great internal tumults and violent convulsions?”

If there was a genuine revolution in America, we shall find it not in the sphere of ideological tracts—which history demonstrates may or may not yield actual revolution—but rather in the social sphere.
Nisbit plunges into a fascinating discussion of: Feudalism in America, A Land Based Class System, Laws of Inheritance, An Inevitable Revolution, Religious Freedom, The Great Contradiction, Freedom and Slavery, Dispersion and Division, A Nation of Joiners and The American Brand of Intellects.

Then, Nisbit goes on to claim that America did indeed have a real revolution and pretty much attributed it to the fact that Americans were a simple, practical and common sense people who were not susceptible to various European intellectual movements and their convoluted social and political theories.
The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution were generally businessmen or landowners; they had a stake in society. It is inconceivable that either a Jefferson or a Hamilton could have renounced what Burke called the “wisdom of expediency” in the interest of pursuing an abstract principle. No American leader could have contemplated mass executions or imprisonments with delight, as did the millennialist intellectuals of 1649, 1793, and 1917. At no point in the American Revolution, or in its aftermath, do we find any Committee of the Public Safety after the French fashion, any Council of the People’s Commissars, any Lilburnes, Robespierres, or Lenins. Nothing so completely gave the American Revolution its distinctive character as the absence of the European species of political intellectual. It is only in the present century that we have seen this species coming into prominence in America.

In conclusion, I would argue, then, that there was indeed an American Revolution in the full sense of the word–a social, moral, and institutional revolution that effected major changes in the character of American society–as well as a war of liberation from England that was political in nature.
Who in their right mind today wouldn't welcome a true Revolution for liberty? The fact that the Federalists won the day and the original Jeffersonian Republicans got squashed is indeed a most disturbing legacy of American history.

That said, the Jeffersonian Republicans never really disappeared. While a minority, they exist as Ron Paul supporters, Libertarians, Independents and folks of various political stripes who do in fact comprehend that Hamiltonian Federalism is a Big Fail.

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