The Americanness of the American Revolution

November 26th, 2012

Over at City Journal, Myron Magnet has a new article that reminds us just how incredible the American founding was. “That so many great men came together at that time and place to do such great deeds,” he writes, “is one of history’s most thought-provoking miracles.”

Comparing the success of the American revolution with the failures of the French and Russian revolutions, Magnet argues that “a key reason the [American] revolution succeeded was its strictly limited scope”:

The Founders sought only liberty, not equality or fraternity. They aimed to make a political revolution, not a social or an economic one. Their Lockean social-contract political philosophy taught them that the preservation of individual liberty was the goal of politics. Its basis was the surrender of a portion of man’s original, natural freedom to a government that would protect the large remainder of it better than any individual could do on his own—the freedom to make your own fate and think your own thoughts without fear of bodily harm, unjust imprisonment, or robbery. The Founders’ study of history taught them that the British constitution under which they had lived—“originally and essentially free,” as Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew described it—was the ideal embodiment of such a contract. It was “the most perfect combination of human powers in society,” John Adams wrote in 1766, “for the preservation of liberty and the production of happiness”—until George III began to violate it. So Americans didn’t take up arms to create a new world order according to some abstract theory. They sought only to restore the political liberty they had actually experienced for 150 years, and they constructed their new government to preserve it. […]

It was that historical understanding that made Founders like Livingston and James Madison begin their journey to revolution with an assertion of freedom of conscience, which led to freedom to examine and judge for yourself, to think your own thoughts and speak and write them—and all the rest, since liberty is seamless. An “equal TOLERATION of Conscience,” Livingston wrote, “is justly deem’d the Basis of public Liberty in this Country.” To Madison, for whom America “offer[ed] an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion,” an established, official, obligatory religion, with dogmas you must profess, though it is seemingly “distant from the Inquisition, . . . differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance.” Even George Washington, who never knew that his great-great-grandfather, an Anglican cleric, suffered religious persecution at the hands of Cromwell’s Puritans, often liked to speak of America, with an endearing mix of Old and New Testament echoes, as “a Land of promise, with milk & honey,” which offered a refuge to “the poor, the needy & the oppressed of the Earth; and anyone therefore who is heavy laden.” He wasn’t alone among the colonists in thinking of the settlement of America in terms of the Israelites’ providential deliverance from Egyptian tyranny to the Promised Land. […]

The American Revolution, then, was doubly limited in its aims: limited to making only a political change without altering social or economic arrangements, and determined to set strict limits to its new government, fearful that any governmental power beyond the barest minimum necessary to protect liberty too easily could become a threat to liberty itself. So apprehensive were the Founders on this score that the governmental structure they erected after the Declaration of Independence proved too weak to perform its essential function of protecting their lives, liberties, and properties adequately, prolonging the Revolutionary War and increasing the hardships of the men who fought it. With great misgivings, the Founders had to create a new constitution to give government the necessary powers, but their most urgent concern was to make those powers limited and enumerated, hedged around with every check and balance they could think of to prevent tyrannical abuse.

With similar prudence and modesty, when they wrote the new constitution, the Founders nursed no grandiose illusions that they were going to change human nature by altering the structure of government. Except for Thomas Jefferson, they didn’t believe in human perfectibility, as did some of the French philosophes whose worldview Jefferson had absorbed in his years in Paris as well as from his voluminous reading. The Founders certainly didn’t aspire to create something like the New Soviet Man. They had a very clear-eyed assessment of human nature. After all, their social-contract theory rested on a psychology that acknowledged what Patrick Henry called, conventionally enough, “the depravity of human nature,” with its lusts, aggression, and greed no less inborn than its rights. They tried to create a republic that would flourish with human nature as it is, with all its cross-grained passions and interests. They never forgot, as Alexander Hamilton cautioned, “that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”

Still, they weren’t cynics. Despite human nature’s failings, they believed men capable of virtue, as history, literature, observation, and introspection taught them. Not all men, and not all the time; but if “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” Madison observed in Federalist 55, only “the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring each other.” The question that vexed many throughout the Founding pertained to what conditions virtue needed to thrive. What kind of culture and education would nourish it? Could it survive in a large republic? Would commerce and investment stifle it, especially since they breed luxury, which “the Voice of History” teaches, wrote Livingston, is “a Kind of political Cancer, which corrodes and demolishes the best regulated Constitution”? Just look at “Rome; e’er-while the Nurse of Heroes, and the Terror of the World; but now the obscene Haunt of sequestered Bigots, and effeminate Slaves,” he wrote in 1753. For the next three decades, Americans worried that liberty couldn’t survive a culture of riches, with its “musicians, pimps, panders, and catamites,” as one signer of the Declaration of Independence fretted. In such a money-corrupted culture, some Founders worried, legislators and offices would be for sale.

The best answer to that fear was the example of the Founders themselves—men of luminous public spirit, who had no hesitation in “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” in the Declaration of Independence. And that is the last, and largest, reason that the American Revolution succeeded, where others failed. Its leaders were men of extraordinary character, merit, intelligence, wisdom, and, in the case of Washington, the Founding’s presiding genius, of heroic private virtue, too. They had the unshakable courage to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to assure the Revolution’s success. Already social leaders, professional successes, or both, they had no psychological need to exalt themselves, and certainly not by abasing or terrorizing others, as such revolutionary psychopaths as Robespierre or Lenin did. They never dreamed of placing themselves above the laws that they had made as the people’s representatives, and they wholeheartedly agreed with Madison that if the “spirit that nourishes freedom” should “ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.” And when they had played their parts and done their duty, they were content—indeed, eager—to go home.

Read Magnet’s entire article at City Journal.

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