Nature’s God and American Radicalism

The following is an excerpt from a book I’m reading, Nature’s God. I’m not familiar with the author, Matthew Stewart, but maybe I should make myself more familiar with his writings.

The book fills in some holes in my knowledge of the revolutionary era. I know Thomas Paine well. I’m ever so slightly familiar with Ethan Allen. But I do believe Thomas Young is entirely new to me. I don’t recall having come across his name previously.

All three of these, along with some others, are the real founders.

They weren’t born into wealth, privilege, and education. They had to struggle their whole lives and they all put everything on the line, both their lives and their livelihoods, even their hard-earned reputations, all sacrificed for what they believed. They had a lot less to lose and a lot more to gain by challenging the status quo, but it wasn’t just desperate poverty that compelled them to seek something better. They felt genuine conviction for what others thought impossible or dangerous.

They were lovers of freedom and democracy, defenders of the common man and the common good. They were the rabblerousers and instigators, the radicals and revolutionaries. They lit the fire under the asses of the elite and of the contented, of the likes of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. Without these working class troublemakers, there would have been no American Revolution, no Declaration of Independence, and no new country.

The least we should do is honor their memory. Better yet, we could take seriously the values that motivated them and the ideals that inspired them.

* * * *

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
By Matthew Stewart
pp. 16-23

HOW DO WE DECIDE who deserves a place in history? Generations of devoted American history buffs have spent countless hours reading and writing long books about the American Revolution without ever having come across the name of Dr. Thomas Young. Yet Young was, among other things, one of the people who brought us the original Tea Party. It was he who stood before the assembled people of Boston on November 29, 1773, and first articulated the transparently illegal proposition that the only way to get rid of the East India Company’s loathsome cargo was to throw it into the harbor. 29 It was he who, on the evening of December 16, 1773, kept a crowd of thousands at the Old South Church shouting and clapping with a satirical speech on “the ill effects of tea on the constitution” while his best friends, dressed as Mohawks, quietly set off to turn the Boston harbor into a briny teapot. 30 And it turns out that kicking off the event that many years later came to be called the Boston Tea Party was not the most consequential of Thomas Young’s many unsung contributions to the founding of the American Republic.

If it is true, as John Adams famously observed, that the American Revolution took place “in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 . . . before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington,” 31 then many of America’s most celebrated founders should properly be counted as consequences rather than causes of the course of events. In his diary Adams himself described the Tea Party on the morning after as “an Epocha in History,” 32 and yet he wrote about it as an enthusiastic bystander, not a participant, much less an instigator. George Washington seems to have had few serious doubts about America’s place in the Empire until the summer of 1774, when the ordeals of the people of Massachusetts forced him to reappraise the intentions of the King and his ministers. 33 Benjamin Franklin tarried in London until 1775, nurturing his dream of retiring to the life of a grand pooh-bah of the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, “knew more of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites than he did of what was passing in Boston,” groused the envious Adams in later life. 34 James Madison (b. 1751) and Alexander Hamilton (b. 1755 or 1757) were mere schoolboys when the hard work of changing the American mind began. As America’s busy hagiographers have been keen to observe, the men now exalted as America’s founders and framers, taken on the whole, were revolutionaries by circumstance rather than by disposition. They were ambitious, upstanding citizens, generally happy with their lot in life, who at a singular moment in history were presented with a fateful choice.

Thomas Young, on the other hand, was no accidental revolutionary. He was present at the creation of the movement, and he never left. He was unhappy, brilliant, resentful, and heroically optimistic. He was a plotter, a conspirer, an ideologue, and a provocateur. He did not disguise his belief that in order to make a revolution you have to break some eggs. He vowed always— in his own words—“ to fight the good fight.” 35 Above all, he was a man with a message, so convinced of the merit of the ideas in his head that keeping his mouth shut would have seemed like a crime against humanity.

“He published his first screed championing the natural rights of Englishmen against the injustices of imperial rule in 1764, when he was thirty-three. In the following year, he found himself at the head of a mob on the streets of Albany, leading the protests against the Stamp Act. He rose to the leadership of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty and soon made contact with like-minded activists across the colonies. In 1766, he moved to Boston to join with the radical faction gathering around James Otis and Samuel Adams. As Boston struggled with occupation, he rapidly established himself as the most militant voice in the local newspapers and the go-to man whenever a rabble stood in need of rousing. Governor Thomas Hutchinson regularly named him as one of the four most dangerous men in town. In 1772, together with his fellow radicals, he founded the Boston Committee of Correspondence— a momentous breakthrough in propaganda technology that served to spread both rebellious sentiments and democratic practices throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the colonies. 36

“What an engine!” John Adams exclaimed in 1815. “The history of the United States can never be written” until one had inquired into the activities of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he said. “France imitated it, and produced a revolution. England and Scotland were upon the point of imitating it, in order to produce another revolution . . . The history of the past thirty years is a sufficient commentary upon it.” 37 And Young’s handwriting was all over the project—quite literally. In the files now held in the archives of the New York Public Library, his distinctive script appears on dozens of unsigned pages of Committee papers— more than any other Committee member— including on parts of a draft of the 1772 declaration of the “rights of the colonists” that John Adams later suggested was one of the models for the Declaration of Independence. 38

“In 1775, Young tumbled into Philadelphia, the scene of his greatest contributions to the revolutionary cause, and instantly fell in with Thomas Paine. In his political polemics, Young anticipated many of the ideas and even some of the language that figured in the pamphlet that changed the world: Paine’s Common Sense of January 1776. 39 At the time, the government of Pennsylvania was mostly under the control of conservatives who favored reconciliation with Great Britain. In the decisive month of May 1776, Young, Paine, and a handful of their fellow radicals engineered a Bolshevik-style coup d’état that replaced the legitimately elected government of the province with a pro-independence faction. The new government of the colony in turn tilted the balance of the Continental Congress in favor of permanent separation from Britain, and within six weeks the Congress declared independence.

“In the summer and fall of 1776, Young and his comrades organized a convention and produced a constitution for the newly independent state of Pennsylvania. It was “the most radically democratic organic law in the world at the time of its creation,” one historian has observed. 40 It vested almost all power in a popularly elected legislature, stipulated a variety of measures to ensure that their representatives would remain answerable to the people, and included a declaration of rights along the lines of those that are familiar to us now from the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Franklin handed out copies in Paris, and the people of the salons assumed that such a revolutionary document could only have been the great scientist’s work. “In truth,” John Adams sniffed, it was Young, Paine, and a pair of their radical friends “who were the authors of it.” 41 And when Young finished with the job in Philadelphia, he sent a copy along with an open letter to the people of Vermont— a state whose name Young himself coined from the French for “Green Mountain” 42 —where, with some further modification, it served as the basis for the first state constitution to ban slavery.

“It is the unapologetically democratic character of Young’s revolution that makes him seem such a striking figure today. By birth, by reputation, and by conviction, Young was a man of the people. In Boston he saved his highest praise for the “common tradesmen” who at town meetings displayed “the wisdom and eloquence of Athenian Senators.” 43 As a member of the Boston Committee, he demanded the overthrow of all the governments that put “the most powerful men in every county and every town” over “the common people.” 44 In Philadelphia he invited the hatred of the ruling classes with his bold proposal that all men should be entitled to vote without regard to their property qualifications. As early as 1770, he had predicted, “A very little time will show you Great Britain reduced into absolute monarchy, or exalted into a Republic!” 45 In the years preceding the Revolutionary War, it should not be forgotten, only a tiny fraction of the American colonials desired independence, and only a much smaller fraction thought in terms of a democratic transformation of society and government. Young belonged to a numerically insignificant sliver who, long before their fellow colonials dared to imagine the possibility of a break from the mother country, dreamed of independence as a means to launch a democratic revolution that would sweep through the British Empire and then around the world.

[ . . . ]

Yet Thomas Young remains, in the words of historian David Freeman Hawke, “unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution.” Hawke made that claim in 1970— and it is still mostly true. Apart from a few worthy pieces of scholarship, the “dirty little screw” of the American Revolution continues to languish on the shop floor of history. 50

“Part of the problem is that Young died too early for his own good, succumbing in July 1777 to a sudden fever contracted while serving as a surgeon for the Continental Army. Having done his best work on the streets and in the backrooms of revolutionary committees, he left no one with any great stake in fighting for his posthumous reputation— no one, that is, except the ever-loyal Ethan Allen, who was soon busy immolating his own legacy.

The biggest obstacle that stood between Thomas Young and the history books, however, was his unabashed deism. In a fistful of bracing newspaper columns, not-so-anonymous pamphlets, and private letters, Young left few of his contemporaries in doubt about the extreme heterodoxy of his religious views. “Could we raise up the spirit of one of the murderers of St. Stephen, to tell us what a figure Paul cut, when he breathed out threatening and slaughter against his Savior, then we might form an idea of Dr. Y—— g,” said one outraged Tory. 51 “Suffice it to say, this man stands accused of rebellion, not only against his Sovereign, but against his God.”

“Young’s fellow citizens regularly accused him of being “a man of no morals,” an “infamous character,” and, of course, an “infidel.” 52 And Young— this is perhaps the most unusual thing about him— regularly responded with daring public confessions in which he let it be known, in so many words, that if with such terms his antagonists meant to identify him a deist, then they were right. Rushing to his defense after one assault on the doctor’s unacceptable creed, his fellow members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence marveled that on his journey through life he had accumulated many friends of high character, notwithstanding the fact that “uniform throughout, he appears in all places to have declared his sentiments on all subjects, natural, civil, and religious.” The thing about Young, everyone agreed, was that he could not keep his mouth shut. When he died, the nation he served found it convenient to forget such a troublesome individual. Let him now face the consequences in the afterlife whose reality he so blasphemously denied, they said, and they moved on.

“Young’s philosophical oeuvre is not large or systematic, and it is sometimes obtuse, as one might expect from a self-taught medicine man moonlighting as a global revolutionary. Yet its neglect turns out to be the most damaging of the many unfortunate consequences of his omission from the history books. In the uncomfortably personal confessions he committed to print, Young tells us what it was like to come of age as a deist in prerevolutionary America. In his sundry philosophical treatises, he articulates a form of deism that is substantially more radical than that which has traditionally figured in the stories America tells itself about its philosophical heritage. And he makes clear that, at least in his own mind, this radical philosophy was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion.

 

The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.

Nothing Is Inevitable

What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?

I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.

From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.

I simply am who I am.

It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.

We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.

Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.

Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.

I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.

The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.

Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.

I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.

I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.

I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.

Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.

That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.

So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.

My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.

Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.

I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.

Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.

What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.

Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.

Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.

There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.

People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.

The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.

We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.

Revolutions: American and French, Part 2

I’ve been reading many books and listening to some lectures on the revolutionary era. It is fair to say that these sources are educating me in a way my schooling didn’t prepare me for. I’m constantly amazed how, like most Americans, I’ve been so ignorant throughout my life. Not just ignorant, but ignorant of how ignorant I was.

I really had no clue about the French Revolution, that is for sure. Anything you think you know about the French Revolution is probably wrong or severely limited. As always, context is freaking everything.

I wrote a bit about what I had learned a while back, but I have since learned so much more.

One interesting fact is the part the Basque played during the revolutionary era. The Basque region is located in the border region of Spain and France. The Basque are a separate people from the Celts and they have lived in that region for a very long time. The Irish descend from the Basque which is interesting as the English used their policies toward the Irish as a blueprint for their later colonizing efforts. The Basque and the Irish are both a proud people that had long struggles against imperialism.

The Basque were a highly respected people since for most of their history they remained unconquered. Neither the Romans nor the Moors could put them down, partly because they had a good defensible location in the mountains. This is what formed their republican tradition which inspired John Adams thinking about republicanism in America. (As a side note, many Basque immigrated to the Americas and later on helped shape the cowboy culture of open range cattle ranching; so they were the original cowboys.)

The Basque supported the French Revolution early on, like most people (like most Americans and most British). It was only later on that they experienced oppression as well and lost their independence (and only later that the French Revolution got a bad reputation during the era of anti-revolutionary backlash).

The early years of the French Revolution were more about political reform than the revolution we know from the Reign of Terror (the revolution began in 1789 and the use of the guillotine didn’t begin until 1793). Even so, keep in mind that more people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. Also, keep in mind that more people suffered oppression and died because of the results of the American failure to abolish slavery than did with the entire French Revolution.

Originally, the revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy and that would have worked out just fine except King Louis XVI didn’t want to have his power constrained, as neither did King Charles I when facing the English Civil War, and so likewise regicide followed. The revolutionaries also weren’t trying to get rid of the aristocracy, take their land or take their wealth. They simply wanted the aristocracy to be treated like everyone else with no special privileges. Also, the revolutionaries had no desire to get rid of the church. The clergy were among the strongest supporters of the early revolution.

This early period of reform lasted for several years.

So, what went wrong? I’m not sure if anything went wrong exactly. Revolutions are always a gamble. There was nothing that guaranteed the American Revolution wouldn’t have had  a similar fate. Revolutions happen because all other recourses have failed, and that was even more true for the French than for the Americans.

The French people were truly desperate in a way Americans at that time couldn’t have imagined. They were living in a severely oppressive society and the people were starving. Americans before the Revolution were among the most free people in the world. It was because Americans were so used to being free that they felt affronted by having that freedom even slightly lessened. The French, on the other hand, were dealing with problems that literally were life and death for many of them. The French government wasn’t a far off institution as was the British government. It was an everpresent reality. American colonists knew no equivalent to the Bastille.

Also, consider how much more the French revolutionaries had going against them.

Besides the constant threat of starvation, they had more enemies than allies. The French are the only reason American revolutionaries won their war. Thousands of French citizens fought and died in the American Revolution. There is no equal number of American citizens who returned the favor by fighting and dying in the French Revolution. Nor did the French Revolutionaries have a major empire on its side as the American revolutionaries had with France. Instead, the French were facing enemies from without as they were facing enemies from within. Many of the European Empires sought to attack France during its moment of weakness and so the French were forced to fight wars as a nation even as they were attempting to rebuild their nation.

It was a nearly impossible situation for a revolution. It is a miracle that it didn’t turn out worse.

Early Americans had it easy in comparison. If the American Revolution had been similar to the French Revolution, American revolutionaries would not only had to fight the British government on its own territory but simultaneously fight the Native Americans and the Spanish Empire while being abandoned by the French Empire. On top of that, American revolutionaries would have had to deal with a larger population that was facing starvation as well.

How well would the American Revolution have turned out under those conditions? Probably not so well.

When a clueless asshole like Edmund Burke complained about the French Revolution, what would he have preferred? Should the French just accepted their fate by starving to death and allowing themselves to be continually killed and imprisoned by an oppressive government? The British Empire later on killed more Irish than the number of people killed in the Reign of Terror. As an Irishman and defender of the British Empire, what answer would Burke have for that? Would he have suggested the Irish to have just taken it and not to have fought back? Of course not.

Context is everything. And to understand the context one needs to know the facts.

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

Here is a passage from Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

This is one of my favorites because it shows how differently Paine viewed the world than how the American Revolution has been portrayed by many mainstream scholars since. It is only in recent decades that scholars have begun to take more seriously what the Founders actually wrote.

To summarize, it is about the supposed attachment between the British Empire and her colonies and the possibility or even desirability of reconciliation. Paine, of course, argues against this. It isn’t only the view that is intriguing but the data he uses in defending it. Paine wasn’t all revolutionary rhetoric. From a modern perspective, it is attractive how he tried to ground his argument in rationality and facts, the very horrid things that Burke detested (or pretended to detest).

Most interesting to me is his focus on the diversity of the colonies. What did it mean to speak of attachment to England as a mother country when colonies like New Netherlands weren’t originally English (with laws and a population that remained largely Dutch) and when colonies like Pennsylvania and New Jersey consisted only of a minority of Englishmen. This kind of thinking seems radical to many conservatives today as it did to conservatives back then. The only difference is that the conservatives back then were British Tories.

What ever returns to my thinking is how often the arguments against Britain would now apply to our federal government. The argument against both, respectively by the Revolutionaries and the Anti-Federalists, was an argument for freedom, for democratic self-governance. The American Revolution wasn’t fought for patriotic conformity and ethnocentric nationalism, for authoritarian subservience and centralized statism; but the complete opposite. The Revolution never ended and we continue to fight for those Revolutionary ideals.

I’ll add emphasis to direct the readers attention to, in my mind, the most key parts and most interesting tidbits.

* * * *

As much hath been said of the advantages of reconciliation, which,
like an agreeable dream, hath passed away and left us as we were, it
is but right, that we should examine the contrary side of the
argument, and inquire into some of the many material injuries which
these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected
with, and dependant on Great Britain. To examine that connexion and
dependance, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what
we have to trust to, if separated, and what we are to expect, if
dependant.

I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished
under her former connexion with Great Britain, that the same
connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always
have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind
of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived
upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty
years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But
even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that
America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no
European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which
she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will
always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.

But she has protected us, say some. That she hath engrossed us is
true, and defended the continent at our expence as well as her own is
admitted, and she would have defended Turkey from the same motive,
viz. the sake of trade and dominion.

Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made
large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of
Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST
not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on
OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from
those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will
always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave her
pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the
dependance, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they
at war with Britain. The miseries of Hanover last war ought to warn
us against connexions.

It hath lately been asserted in parliament, that the colonies have
no relation to each other but through the parent country, I. E.
that Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, and so on for the rest, are sister
colonies by the way of England; this is certainly a very round-about
way of proving relationship, but it is the nearest and only true way
of proving enemyship, if I may so call it. France and Spain never
were, nor perhaps ever will be our enemies as AMERICANS, but as our
being the SUBJECTS OF GREAT BRITAIN.

But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame
upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages
make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns
to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so,
and the phrase PARENT or MOTHER COUNTRY hath been jesuitically
adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design
of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds.
Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new
world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and
religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe. Hither have they fled,
not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of
the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny
which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants
still.

In this extensive quarter of the globe, we forget the narrow limits
of three hundred and sixty miles (the extent of England) and carry
our friendship on a larger scale; we claim brotherhood with every
European christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment.

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount
the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the
world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will
naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their
interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the
name of NEIGHBOUR; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he
drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of
TOWNSMAN; if he travel out of the county, and meet him in any
other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls
him COUNTRYMAN; i. e. COUNTY-MAN; but if in their foreign
excursions they should associate in France or any other part of
EUROPE, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of
ENGLISHMEN. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans
meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are
COUNTRYMEN; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared
with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which
the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones;
distinctions too limited for continental minds. Not one third of the
inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. Wherefore
I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England
only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous.

But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it
amount to? Nothing. Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes
every other name and title: And to say that reconciliation is our
duty, is truly farcical. The first king of England, of the present
line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the Peers of
England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same
method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.

Much hath been said of the united strength of Britain and the
colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world.
But this is mere presumption; the fate of war is uncertain, neither
do the expressions mean any thing; for this continent would never
suffer itself to be drained of inhabitants, to support the British
arms in either Asia, Africa, or Europe.

Besides, what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our
plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the
peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of
all Europe to have America a FREE PORT. Her trade will always be a
protection, and her barrenness of gold and silver secure her from
invaders.

I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to shew, a
single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected
with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is
derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and
our imported goods must be paid for buy them where we will.

About The American Crisis No. III

I was randomly reading from some of Thomas Paine’s writings. I picked The American Crisis because it is about that early revolutionary period. The pamphlet, The Crisis No. III, dated April 19, 1777 caught my attention.

Paine begins with the “progress of politics” and how experience brings us to where we are, how ensuing events are built on “past occurrences” which are important to recollect. He then moves in on his target of derision, shifting from generalities to specifics. The Tories are blamed for a failure of insight into present happenings for they supposedly misconstrued what came before.

Paine, expressing impatience with the pace of events, definitely stops mincing words and gets to the meat of the matter:

“The success of the cause, the union of the people, and the means of supporting and securing both, are points which cannot be too much attended to. He who doubts of the former is a desponding coward, and he who wilfully disturbs the latter is a traitor.”

After verbally abusing the cowards and traitors, he moves onto the four “principal arguments in support of independence”:

“1st, The natural right of the continent to independence.
2d, Her interest in being independent.
3d, The necessity,- and
4th, The moral advantages arising therefrom.”

The first argument is short and sweet. He basically just says it is our self-evident natural right and there need be no further defense nor possibility of debate. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The second argument intrigued me moreso:

“The interest of the continent in being independent is a point as clearly right as the former. America, by her own internal industry, and unknown to all the powers of Europe, was, at the beginning of the dispute, arrived at a pitch of greatness, trade and population, beyond which it was the interest of Britain not to suffer her to pass, lest she should grow too powerful to be kept subordinate. She began to view this country with the same uneasy malicious eye, with which a covetous guardian would view his ward, whose estate he had been enriching himself by for twenty years, and saw him just arriving at manhood. And America owes no more to Britain for her present maturity, than the ward would to the guardian for being twenty-one years of age.”

This new entity, America, owes no one anything for its existence. America owes even less for its own hard-earned success and abundance. This is the argument of rebellious youth at a perceived capricious and avaricious authority. America coming into its maturity demands its independence to now make its own way in the world.

He makes it seem as if the British government and military played no role whatsoever. The claim by the monarchy and the empire is arbitrary and meaningless.

“Britain thought it worth her while to claim them, and the continent received and acknowledged the claimer. It was, in reality, of no very great importance who was her master, seeing, that from the force and ambition of the different powers of Europe, she must, till she acquired strength enough to assert her own right, acknowledge some one. As well, perhaps, Britain as another; and it might have been as well to have been under the states of Holland as any. The same hopes of engrossing and profiting by her trade, by not oppressing it too much, would have operated alike with any master, and produced to the colonies the same effects. The clamor of protection, likewise, was all a farce; because, in order to make that protection necessary, she must first, by her own quarrels, create us enemies. Hard terms indeed!”

He does at least partly make a good point. The British Empire wants the colonists to pay for defense against the enemies the British Empire has created or otherwise inevitably attracted. Portrayed in this manner, it sounds like a protection racket.

Paine’s third argument is that the colonists were in an impossible situation under British rule. This sad state of affairs would just get harder and more cumbersome. The situation demanded to be changed. The alternatives were unacceptable to any freedom-loving population. Hence, independence must be asserted for, one way or another, its fruition was a foregone conclusion.

In his fourth argument, he brings up the injustice of militaristic imperialism and the endless European wars that followed from it. The colonists, by being part of the British Empire, became complicit in this injustice and so shared in the guilt. As Americans these centuries later, his damning criticism against Britain now cuts back against us with even greater force:

“Britain, for centuries past, has been nearly fifty years out of every hundred at war with some power or other. It certainly ought to be a conscientious as well political consideration with America, not to dip her hands in the bloody work of Europe.”

We are even more guilty. For the centuries following Paine writing this, the vast majority of years were spent in warfare along with instigating or being involved with near endless military interventions, invasions, occupations, assassinations, and coup d’etats. We have become worse than what he criticized. The United States, which Paine named, became the monster that the revolutionaries, inspired by Paine, were fighting against.

The rest of the pamphlet is largely an expounding upon the details of the revolution, congress, rivalries and conflicts. He focuses some attention on Quakers in similar terms as he righteously attacks Tories. At times, it can be dispiriting to read how much he demonizes his opponents and thus seeks to polarize (you’re with us or against us), but I guess that is how revolutions happen or they happen not at all.

I only want to bring up one more part from this pamphlet. The following is a great conclusion for this post and, as well, for my previous two posts. About reluctance in getting fully on board with independence, Paine offers a note of insight and hope:

“Error in opinion has this peculiar advantage with it, that the foremost point of the contrary ground may at any time be reached by the sudden exertion of a thought; and it frequently happens in sentimental differences, that some striking circumstance, or some forcible reason quickly conceived, will effect in an instant what neither argument nor example could produce in an age.”

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution': from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso

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