Revolutionary Success

OldFlagby Timothy Lane   1/20/14
Successful revolutions have a long history of resulting in worse conditions. Both in France (especially with the Jacobins) and in Russia (with the Bolsheviks) revolution took an amazingly bloody course. And yet, somehow, the American revolution of 1775 led to no such bloodbath, and in fact largely accomplished its goals (whatever has happened in nearly 240 years since). What are the factors that led to this result?

One obvious possibility, which Ann Coulter discusses in Demonic, is the role of the mob. In Paris, mobs took an early and bloody role from the storming of the Bastille (freeing all of 3 prisoners, most notably the Marquis de Sade – a dissolute nobleman who was imprisoned for murdering a prostitute and then freed in the name of the common people) through the Terror and beyond. On the other hand, the Sons of Liberty and other such groups were capable of mob action, and not only many Tories but many who were simply cautious about independence – such as William Dickinson and Robert Morris in Pennsylvania – faced their wrath. But for all the vandalism and riotous behavior, both Dickinson and Morris lived to attend the Constitutional convention in 1787. As Coulter points out, they did not end up in the 1776 equivalent of the guillotine, as they surely would have in France.

So why were the American mobs less bloody than the French ones? Perhaps it resulted from the Religious awakening (the first of the great revival periods in American history) that preceded it. Even the mob members, perhaps, remembered that to Christians every soul has value, and human life should not be taken lightly. No doubt this is why non-religious revolutionaries piled up far higher body counts than their Ancien Regime predecessors. And that Christian influence was even stronger in the American leadership than in the American mobs, something that wasn’t true of the Jacobins in France.

This leads to another interesting cause for moderation in America. Whereas the Jacobin (like the Bolsheviks and so many other revolutionaries over the past 2 centuries) were basically middle-class self-professed intellectuals who resented the wealth of those (aristocrats, merchants, whoever) they considered inferior, in America many of the revolutionaries were themselves men of great wealth. Perhaps tax revolts simply tend out better than other kinds of rebellion.

Because the Americans were rebelling over taxes being imposed by an increasingly foreign administration in London (little did they know how much worse those taxes would later be once theoretically self-imposed), and in fact most were reluctant to act at all (hence the Olive Branch petition and similar hopeless efforts), they didn’t seek to overturn society as completely as did the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. The former even created new currency, new measuring systems (which are now used just about everywhere except America, where the people have been allowed to make their own choice instead of having it imposed on them by elites), and a new calendar (which didn’t last very long).

One must also remember that the Americans didn’t revolt simply for the leaders to take power. The states held regular elections to choose their representatives in the Second Continental Congress, which ruled the country (to the extent that anyone did). And George Washington provided (twice) a lesson in surrendering power that few later revolutionaries were inclined to follow.

A final aspect, I think, is the matter of “revolution from above.” I encountered this concept in a class on German history with regard to the Prussian reform period after the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 (and wrote my term paper in the course on the subject), and one can also describe the reforms of Tsar Alexander II the same way. These were much milder than real revolutions, but also didn’t have the bloody consequences. And to a great extent, something like this happened in America. The people who wrote the Constitution, in particular, were among the intellectual and financial elite (such as there was), though it had to be approved by the population at large. • (1394 views)

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22 Responses to Revolutionary Success

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Great essay, Timothy.

  2. steve lancaster says:

    I would suggest that the difference between the American and French revolutions was the American revolution was fundamentally conservative in action and thought. This is something that Edmond Burke saw and wrote about. His reflections on the revolution in France is ample evidence of his belief that the terror is coming. Contrast to his speech in Parliament on the justice of the American revolution.

    However, if you ever visit Mt. Vernon, or you have visited. Hanging on a hook by the door is a large key. The key was sent by Lafayette to Washington. It is the key to the bastille sent from the people of France to the father of liberty.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Both the 1776 and 1861 revolts could be considered conservative, but there were certainly plenty of rebels in the first place who wouldn’t have been considered conservative in the context of their times. So the question would still be why it was more conservative than the French model.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        A major difference in the American and French Revolutions was the Americans were rebelling to regain their ancient natural rights which they saw as being taken from them. Too many of the French revolutionaries saw themselves as creating a new world.

        Your observation regarding the difference backgrounds of the American revolutionaries as opposed to the Jacobins and Bolsheviks is important. The American revolutionaries were men who had exercised power in a real world way. Jacobins such as Robespierre and Bolsheviks such as Lenin, were middle class intellectuals who had never exercised much power in the real world and saw things through a theoretical lens. I forget which historian said it, but he warned us against letting the intellectuals of the world rule us. They are constantly trying to fit the square pegs of humanity into the round holes of their theories. And if the pegs don’t fit, the intellectuals are quiet happy to trim a little off the sides.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I forget which historian said it but he warned us against letting the intellectuals of the world rule us.

          I think that was Senator Thomas Sowell of the old Roman Republic.

        • dagny says:

          Europe was Christian so I don’t know if that would be a reason for the difference in the revolutions, however neither the french nor the russian revolutions themselves were. That may have mattered considerably. The other obvious factor was population. There is some evidence that a lack of wheat in France due to several wet seasons helped to fuel the French revolution. I would also contend that in Europe the land was not sufficient for the population where in the Americas it was. People would also be more valued if the population was not dense than if it were.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            A good point. It’s no accident that overcrowded Greece was the most pro-homosexual culture in the ancient world. Life is cheap when there seem to be too many people.

            • dagny says:

              Right, and the Greeks didn’t have an area to expand into and no plethora of arable land. When you start to squeeze a population, you get all kinds of anti-life behavior. Rodents will kill their own young. In some ways the French Revolution acted like the plague or the potato famine, culling the herd. I’m not sure that isn’t the problem in the tenement sections of our big cities, territory, overcrowding which lends holding life at a much lower value. I wonder if that is what happens to the brains of the liberals; a code that is set off when they live in Manhattan or LA or DC that causes them to adopt the distorted views they do because they’re crowded? That they become not sheep but gerbils?

        • LibertyMark says:

          Wasn’t another difference between the American and French revolutions a very secular (read: anti-Christian) character to the French Revolution? For that matter, wasn’t the FR very much anti-everything? Anti-religion, anti-crown, even anti-intellectual in the end. I don’t see the same “anti” in the AR.

          Now that I think of it, the Russian Revolution had many of the same anti characteristics.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            All that and more, Mark.

            Any war or revolution is the product of its own particular circumstances. But it can be said that the America Revolution was a conservative revolution. The Colonists where merely looking to maintain the rights they already had as an Englishman in the Colonies.

            The French Revolution was your (now) typical set of ivory tower, pointy-heady intellectuals who used “the poor” to justify their totalitarian/utopian impulses which had nothing to do with “the poor.” While doing so, they simply played to the mob while using big words which worked for purposes of self-delusion as well.

            And, it must be said, that many of these people (including Thomas Paine) got thoroughly and naively caught up in the 18th century equivalent of “hope and change” (called at the time “the rights of man”). Jefferson himself was not immune to these heady fumes of an earthly utopia. This is a psychological malady whereby people wish to find for themselves some kind of acceptance that they cannot otherwise find for themselves in the world. The state itself is to become its cathedral with all the supposed virtues of redemption (which is along the lines of today’s “Progressivism” being a secular/statist religion).

            And for others, of course, Utopia is just a means for ruthless payback aimed at a disembodied “society” for people’s personal perceived slights. The American Left, for example, can be understood as simply the focus for peoples’ grievances — which are almost always trumped-up and over-blown in hyperventilated contrast to a real-world society that one lives in which is always deemed suitable for the wrecking ball because of how it falls short of utopia. And all this (as it is now under Obama) is masked by concerns for “the poor” or for “equality” (or also now, “the environment”). But to first understand the difference between the French and American revolutions is to understand that one was inherently sick and psychologically twisted or fragile while the other was not.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              That’s a very nice way of showing the difference between what I call the Inner Party (the liberals who know what they’re doing and why) and the Outer Party (the liberals who actually believe the excuses given for seizing power).

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Paine’s more rabid Leftism was relatively tempered in his “Common Sense” which made the case, in part, that mankind had grown beyond the need for kings.

                Wouldn’t it be great today to have Paine with us again, perhaps penning “Common Sense II” and telling us that mankind had grown beyond the need for nannies and ceaseless bureaucrats? We’ve really come full circle on the idea of self-government. Rush was articulating today about the idea that Europeans assume that unless something is specifically authorized by government, it is considered illegal (or at least wrong). Americans used to, on the other hand, assume that if something was not specifically prohibited by government, it was legal. Rush noted the preponderance of yutes today to have a complete trust in government (except the one issue, as he noted, of the NSA).

                This is the attitude of a weak people. And the weakness that is most dangerous is the automatic association of “good” with “the state.” This lets loose a tiger that most of these “social justice” fools have little idea of. This unskeptical trust of the state all but makes it impossible for a moral realm to exist outside of politics and the state. That means, in practice, the only measure of “the good” is what is politically expedient as typically decided by the most unscrupulous people.

                All “Progressives” are fools. Yes, they think of themselves as God’s gift to humanity because of their superficial support of various boutique fads and fancies (gay marriage, for example). But they are fools nonetheless. They have no idea what is required (a sphere of influence outside of government) to keep government from becoming a monster. And if, as Mussolini said, it becomes “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” there is not even such a thing as morality, personal freedom, human dignity, and human decency.

                There are many reasons that people sell themselves to the state. As Rush noted someone else saying, freedom is often not a popular thing. Rush noted that becoming a dependent of the state is considered a positive thing by many, especially because one then doesn’t have take responsibility for one’s self and one’s failures.

                Both political parties are feeding into this society-wide feebleness. Who knows where it will end? But the ending will not be good despite all the rainbows and unicorns painted on this statism by foolish “Progressives.”

            • LibertyMark says:

              I don’t wonder if Paine’s secularism was his undoing. I also think we are downplaying the role played by the seeking of Divine Providence by our Founders.

              Juxtapose this with the Cult of Reason in Revolutionary France meant to replace Christianity. Compare to the Marxist-Leninist “religion as the opium of the people”.

              If you are a Secularist, you will downplay this as a factor in our revolution. (I really don’t see how you can, when the very raison d’être for Europeans in North America was religious liberty. But that is perhaps a separate discussion.) Keep in mind that many American pastors were blasting the message of Liberty from the pulpits of America pre-Revolution.

              For more on this see Kirk Cameron’s film Monumental. Even if you are a secularist, you’ll appreciate the historical artifacts of Christianity in America the film presents.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                One of our readings in junior English was from Paine’s deist tract, The Age of Reason. It was thinking about his arguments that led me to religious skepticism. My favorite of the apostles would naturally be Thomas the Doubter.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    “A major difference in the American and French Revolutions was the Americans were rebelling to regain their ancient natural rights which they saw as being taken from them. Too many of the French revolutionaries saw themselves as creating a new world”

    You have boiled it down to its essence and you are exactly right.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    One of our readings in junior English was from Paine’s deist tract, The Age of Reason. It was thinking about his arguments that led me to religious skepticism.

    I’m not taking about you, Timothy, for I know you to be of sound mind and reasonable disposition. And I’m somewhat of a skeptic myself. But one of the most dire aspects of the cult of “reason” is that it fills its ideological fuel tanks with nitrous oxide based primarily upon the self-absorbed conceit of “better than thou.” That is, it’s not “reason” that fuels the (latter-era) Paine types. It’s the ill-considered conceit that because one’s being is not grounded in religion, that therefore (for lack of better words) one’s own shit doesn’t stink.

    I wonder if the above could be a very condensed view of Edmund Burke’s attacks against the French Revolution in “Reflections on the French Revolution.” It’s a fine thing to be skeptical of some of the claims of religion. But as we see in our own age, what this means, in practice, is that there is little or no introspection and reflection regarding one’s own ideas. It’s just enough to know that one isn’t one of those ignorant, knuckle-dragging, superstitious religious fools. And that, in my experience, is what fuels today’s high-octane “Progressives” and certainly not the inherent goodness or workability of their “Progressive” policies. It’s the shared conceit of “reason” often also called “science.”

    I’m not a superstitious person myself, which is perhaps why organized religion doesn’t touch me. Or perhaps because I take literally the commandment of making no idols. But it is good and right for man to reach for the stars. But it is a totally disastrous experience when he tries to do so through government. And that, if anything, is the chief fault of the French Revolution. Although the language was often expressed in “reasonable” terms (after all, who could be against “the rights of man”?), in practice, the language (like today) was a cover for utopian and zealous impulses. Like today, the Left of the French Revolution was trying to fashion society, via an all-powerful state, into a pseudo-religious and wholly therapeutic entity. Nothing less than perfection will do. There thus becomes little room left for humanity.

    • LibertyMark says:

      For some reason, when reading your post, I was reminded of Captain Zero’s “bitter clingers” comment. I would bet we all have observed this intellectual superiority, the “better than thou” posture of our Prog acquaintances. Even Barry, in what he thought was a private moment, wallowed in it with his peeps.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        And note that Slick Barry, like Andrew Cuomo in New York, has claimed to be a Christian — even though nothing in his behavior supports the claim. Perhaps the fact that so many people I know are actively religious helps keep me from mocking religiosity; in fact, I think there is simply a capacity for faith that I happen to lack. I can believe, and the quality of skepticism developed fairly slowly in me (in fact, my turn to deism was probably the first example of it), but absolute faith is very hard for me to understand.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          And note that Slick Barry, like Andrew Cuomo in New York, has claimed to be a Christian — even though nothing in his behavior supports the claim.

          Thus my various rants, which are not anti-Christian rants. They’re not even anti-hypocrite rants, for few of us live up to our ideals. No, my rants are against the feel-good self-delusions that are in vogue these days. One’s ideology is mere psychological therapy when (in the worst cases) it’s not about power-uber-alles.

          We have worked very hard to obtain this level of civilization. And now we’re throwing it all away because men, in particular, have not the guts to stand up for what is right in the face of what is politically correct or that which dons the veneer of “compassion.”

          We have, as I’ve often said, become a silly people. And silly people have no defense against dangerous, unethical, and ruthless people. And so we have Obama as president, for instance.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        We are quite literally dealing with the cult of the state. And all parties — including the Republican Party (now but a “toxic husk,” according to Mark Steyn) — demand that we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and that’s that…no other legitimate entities are acknowledged.

        There was truly more “diversity” under the Roman emperors than we see with the Left and the rotten Republicans such as Paul Ryan and company. I hope and pray that the useful idiots will wake up and understand that these Obama types are not about “saving the planet.” But if they haven’t woken up by now, it seems that they never will. Our society is almost thoroughly corrupted by the influence of the Left.

        And we see this with Libertarians as well who quite literally fiddle while Rome burns, intent only on legalizing drugs. If Providence has had some hand in steering this country away from mob rule and away from rule by our supposed betters, then that hand has clearly been removed.

        All Christian prophets of today are quite useless. The only prophets who count are Mark Steyn and perhaps Glenn Beck. Christians have sold themselves to the statist devil, having equated “welfare” with charity. Root and branch, the tree is corrupt. Can Christians save themselves let alone our nation? I have great doubts about this for they, along with the rest of the culture, have abandoned propriety, restraint, wisdom, and common sense and have bought into the “nice, but not good” meme of “Progressivism.” And in this world, everyone is “nice” even while they undermine the very pillars that make civilization possible.

        So, in the long run, I feel beholden to God, but not the smaller entities who use his name carelessly. Is God a spendthrift? And why do so many who claim that there is a god worship, in practice, Mother Gaia instead? The mind of Western Civilization is fractured, and nothing now can save it. That’s what I believe.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Bismarck reportedly observed once that “God looks at fools, madmen, and the United States of America.” (I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but his successors would have been well-advised to consider his words when it they chose unnecessarily to confront the US.) Perhaps God has decided that if we can’t learn from the lesson we’re receiving now, then there’s nothing he can do for us but allow us to become a cautionary tale for anyone else capable of learning.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Perhaps God has decided that if we can’t learn from the lesson we’re receiving now, then there’s nothing he can do for us but allow us to become a cautionary tale for anyone else capable of learning.

            Perhaps, Timothy. It would certainly be a good thing to learn the lessons we are not learning now. They would include:

            + An understanding of basic economics — including that Marxism in all its forms is a destructive lie

            + That wordplay such as “diversity” should not sway the heads of hoopleheads. In order for a good, self-governing society to exist, we must be able to see beyond the marketing slogans of the demagogues and hucksters

            + That good, strong men are needed for a just society. It is not enough simply to pretend differences do not exist. It’s not enough to sing “Kumbaya” in the face of real evils.

            + Life inherently involves hardship and challenge. And life can’t be made perfectly fair. The word “equality” is good only in terms of equality under the law. Any other attempt at equality is just equality-of-outcome which inevitably means stifling the productive and rewarding the moochers.

            + People whose heads are buried in the idiocy of modern television and other passive distractions are in no position to govern themselves wisely. We must turn off the idiot box and instead read useful books.

            + The job of the Christian is not to say that God will do this or God will do that. It is to take up one’s own cross and get in the face of the people and causes in our society which are destructive and poisonous. Being “polite” in our society more and more means being a passive collaborator with evil.

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