by 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. • (1525 views)