When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

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.

Failed Revolutions All Around

I’ve been reading many comparisons of the American and French Revolutions. Unsurprisingly, I have my own take on such things that disagree with mainstream interpretations.

I don’t see these revolutions as being entirely distinct.

The American Revolution originated with the English Civil War. Actually, the entirety of the American colonial cultures and their respective social/political traditions began with the English dissenters and their enemies. The aristocrats who came to populate the South may have been or descended from Loyalists, but by the time of the American Revolution even they were swayed to the position of the religious dissenters against the Loyalists. The fight against English monarchy didn’t begin with the Enlightenment but with the Puritan split from the Anglican Church.

The French Revolution was in many ways a continuation of the American Revolution by way of influence. Part of the radical tradition that took fruit in France grew out of the English tradition. It was an Englishman like Paine that helped inspire both the American and French Revolutions. I’d say this relates to why the French Revolution was so similar to the English Civil War, a fact that would be obvious to more people if not for cultural bias.

This connection shouldn’t be so hard to understand. A large part of English culture and monarchy came from the French Normans. Both the British natives and the French natives were conquered and ruled over by the same Germanic tribes. During that era of monarchy, the kings and queens of these various countries along the North Sea tended to be closely related kin. The English got their language and their very name from the Angles and other related Northern European tribes. This created social and political conditions that were very similar across national boundaries.

The French Huguenots and Calvinists influenced the Puritans and Quakers which then shaped their dissent against the Anglican Church and the English monarchy. Those English dissenters later shaped the worldview of English colonists and English native-borns during the Revolutionary Era (Thomas Paine, was raised by a Quaker father and then spent many formative years in one of the major Puritan dissenter towns). This English radicalism then in turn came to influence the French during their revolution. It all came full circle.

A similar relationship existed between England and Netherlands. A Dutch king ruled over England for a time. Also, it was in Netherlands that John Locke sought refuge and was influenced by the Enlightenment tradition there. Classical liberalism of Netherlands and New Netherlands (present New York City) was earlier on more well established than in England and the English colonies. If not for that Dutch influence, maybe the English and their colonists would never have their Lockean tradition of natural rights. A Irishman like Burke who was less influenced by this instead held onto the notion of the rights of Englishmen which he saw as in conflict with this European natural rights philosophy. This is why Burke not only criticized the French Revolution but never fully supported the American cause for independence.

It is only from a modern perspective that we see these societies as being so different.

For various reasons, many have sought to intellectually separate Anglo-American history from European history. In this simplistic style of analysis, the American Revolution is seen as conservative and the French Revolution as radical, the American Revolution as a success and the French Revolution as a failure.

As for the first part, it is hard to see the American Revolution as less radical for it was started by and fought by radicals. Consider the origins of the American Revolution in the War of Regulation, a violent class war if there ever was one. As for the second part, it is hard to see the American Revolution as a clear success. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).

Is that what the revolution was fought for? Is that what vindicates the revolution as a success? A few percentage of elites ruling over the vast majority? With taxes being even higher after the revolution, how was taxation any more representative than before?

The American Revolution didn’t end with success. Even after the elites declared it over, the lower classes went on fighting for their rights: Shay’s Rebellion (1786-1787), Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), Fries’s Rebellion (1799-1800), etc. These kinds of conflicts weren’t resolved even then. Because of the failure of the American Revolution, the Civil War became inevitable. Part of this failure was when the U.S. Constitution replaced rather than improved upon the Articles of Confederation.

This was a series of failures that began with the failure of the War of Regulation when the colonial elites put down those earliest of revolutionaries and had its earliest origins in the failure of the English Civil War that ended in re-establishment of the monarchy. During the Glorious Revolution that helped form the English political order that the colonists faced in the 18th century, there was the 1689 Boston Revolt which some people see as presaging the American Revolution. There was centuries of fighting and never any clear resolution, certainly not ‘success’.

Those failures of the past have their continuing influence into the present. It is because of the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the failure of the Constitutional Convention to improve upon it that has led to a gradual but inevitable centralization of power ever since. Because of that failure then, the Civil War followed. Because of the further failure of the Civil War to resolve these issues, the problems were shifted onto future generations and now we are faced with them. If we fail to resolve these issues in our lifetime, then it will continue on and maybe lead to yet another revolution or civil war.

We never seem to learn from the past or else we learn the wrong lesson entirely. It feels like we are stuck in a repeating pattern that is apparently beyond our collective comprehension. The few visionaries who are able to see clearly, whether Roger Williams during the 17th century or Thomas Paine during the 18th century, never seem to be able to get enough people to understand and so the problems continue on for another generation, another century, another era of oppression and violence.

Criticizing the French for their revolution hardly does justice to understanding our own failures and correcting them.

Revolutions: American and French

A book that has often caught my attention is Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn. I haven’t read it nor do I plan to. The title sounds like something I’d like to read, but the blurb and reviews of it lessen my interest. I’d love to read a good analysis of these two revolutions, just maybe not this one.

I mention it because of one review to which I commented. It is Completely Biased against French Rev by A Customer. The following is my response.

The problem is not all comparisons are useful.

The French Revolution was an event more similar to the English Civil War, both about the local population overthrowing a king and a new social order attempting to violently establish itself against violent oppression. The American Revolution was also very violent, but it involved more isolated populations, including little infrastructure such as roads connecting the colonies. Even if someone wanted to, an authoritarian group couldn’t have forced its will on such a spread out and disconnected population.

Besides, the American Revolution really was just the second part to the English Civil War, bringing to fruition what had been started there. The American Civil War was the final bloody conclusion to what the founding fathers failed to do. If you consider these three together, the Anglo-American political transformation was as violent as the French Revolution. It’s just that both justice and violence was severely delayed in the Anglo-American example.

You also have to consider that the French in Canada were developing a more democratic society long before the British colonies ever attempted that degree of freedom. However, the French colonial experiment in Canada was oppressively destroyed by the British, the prerogative of empires. Furthermore, consider the Basque people from Southern France who helped inspire the republican thinking of the founding fathers.


“Referring to the historical ties that existed between the Basque Country and the United States, some authors stress the admiration felt by John Adams, second president of the US, for the Basques’ historical form of government. Adams, who on his tour of Europe visited Biscay, was impressed. He cited the Basques as an example in A defense of the Constitution of the United States, as he wrote in 1786:

“”In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria…”

“…It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship”.[1]

“Authors such as Navascues, and the Basque-American Pete T. Cenarrusa, former Secretary of the State of Idaho, agree in stressing the influence of the Forua of Biscay

on some parts of the US Constitution. John Adams traveled in 1779 to Europe to study and compare the various forms of government then found on the Old Continent. The American Constitution was approved by the first thirteen states on 17 September 1787.”

The French had their own traditions of republicanism, self-governance and social democracy. History is complex. Why some traditions come to the forefront and others get suppressed is impossible to predict in advance, but easy to see with hindsight as somehow being inevitable, some kind of inherent character. Reality is to complicated for the simple stories we project onto it.

Some say the French Revolution was a failure. Many others would say the same thing about the American Revolution. Paine saw both revolutions with his own eyes and participated in both. Without his inspiration, the American Revolution likely would never have gone anywhere.

Yet, the American Revolution was taken over by plutocrats and oligarchs, hardly a victory to be celebrated. We continue to suffer from the oppressive ruling elite that established itself after the revolution. The oppressive police state we have seen grow with the Cold War and the War on Terror is simply the endgame of the average American having lost the American Revolution. The society we have was built by the winners.

Here is a passage from The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America by Barbara Clark Smith (Kindle Locations 2707-2813):

Mass demonstrations, committee meetings, and crowd actions were more than central to the resistance movement. These experiences were also critical to Americans’ capacity to imagine independence from Great Britain. We see this clearly in the text that many historians credit with placing independence in the forefront of American thinking: Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.

In retrospect, the colonists may seem to have been slow to consider separation from the mother country. True, by the close of 1775, faith in Britain was at low ebb. In April, British soldiers and colonial militiamen had clashed at Lexington and Concord. Men from throughout New England had gathered to contain the British troops in Boston. In June, both sides had suffered significant losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Over the summer, the Second Continental Congress found itself petitioning for peace but conducting a war. Congressmen quickly adopted New England’s provisional forces into a Continental army and placed the Virginian, George Washington, in command. Through fall and early winter, Washington and his men held the hills around Boston harbor in a wary standoff with British forces occupying the city. Even still, many colonists treasured their ties to Britain. Then, in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet came off the press in Philadelphia. A second edition appeared in February, and printers in New York, Boston, Salem, Newport, Hartford, Lancaster, Norwich, Albany, and Providence all issued copies within a few months’ time. With this publication, Paine helped shift colonial discussion from reconciliation with Britain toward independence.

One element of Paine’s success was rhetorical: his work was brilliantly written and forcefully argued. Did some speak respectfully of the drama of the state? Paine wrote of government as a “puppet show,” a genre known and understood by every apprentice who had wasted time in Philadelphia streets. Paine powerfully endorsed the capacities of ordinary Americans. Common men themselves might consider and decide matters of political right and political wrong, even to issues of empire, monarchy, and the very forms of government. Paine carried this conviction through four chapters, never explicitly confronting the conventional view of cobblers and farmers but rendering it moot. Rather than defend the commonalty, he wrote as if their competence were unquestioned.134

Yet Paine’s success reflected as well an ability to fathom the extraordinary political process taking place around him and the unprecedented possibilities that it introduced. Over the resistance years, Americans witnessed, read about, and took part in repeated public negotiations that exercised and affirmed their capacities as neighbors and countrymen. In mass gatherings, local governments, and local committees, merely common men of merely common sense had become increasingly accustomed to exercising political discretion and wielding political power. New men had argued and acted along with more experienced local leaders in official and unofficial bodies. Common tradesmen and farmers had stood in judgment of men who were their social superiors, and they had grown accustomed to receiving deferential hearing from merchants, lawyers, and other educated members of the Patriot elite. When writers in the press scoffed at their abilities, ordinary men had found articulate replies and allies among their betters. For such men, Common Sense reverberated deeply. It assumed and extended the most liberating premise of Patriot practice: the sufficiency of ordinary men and ordinary knowledge.135

At the same time, Common Sense confirmed another belief central to the resistance: the power and virtue of affection, the security to be found in the social bonds that united disparate households into community and society. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” Later thinkers might employ Paine’s phrase to argue for individual rights against the state or for policies of laissez-faire. Yet in 1776, Paine meant something rather different, and something rather more, for what mattered in that crucible year was the strength of colonial societies, understood primarily as arenas of obligation and mutual commitment rather than individuality.

For Paine, as for other Patriots, what was good about society was its web of commitments. Society “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,” he wrote. Unified affections were the very basis of any connection among people, the very ground of political identity. Paine accordingly argued that political allegiance depended on powerful social bonds that transcended mere interest to include sentiments of mutuality and sympathy. Paine offered reasons why the colonies should separate from England and reasons why their strength arose from union with one another. Did some colonists feel gratitude for occasions when Britain had protected the colonies? Their feelings were misplaced, for when Britain defended colonial borders and colonial shipping, “her motive was interest, not attachment.”136 In this logic, self-interest might bind individuals or groups into alliance, but true political unity depended on a deeper tie. Only attachment could join different neighborhoods, towns, counties, or provinces into a single people. “Present convenience” was not enough. Political unity derived from such “feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life.”137 And though such feelings no longer subsisted between the colonies and Britain, colonists from different provinces, he maintained, did enjoy such confidence in and feeling for one another.138

Indeed, despite their manifest differences, had not many colonists of different regions, social classes, and religious beliefs forged a sense of sameness and commonality, precisely through their shared, public pursuit of the Patriot cause? There had been common resolutions of different provincial assemblies; committees chosen by hundreds of towns and counties in different parts of the continent; a gathering and acquiescence of different ranks in real and symbolic punishments, rituals that testified that every Son and Daughter of Liberty detested unconstitutional laws, overreaching officials, and invidious distinctions among neighbors and could be counted on to oppose them all. There had been renewed engagement with one another in commitment to fair and mutually beneficial exchange. In the pages of Patriot newspapers, colonists could read of one another’s actions and resolutions; they could know themselves to be part of a larger movement, a community of the like-minded and the like-hearted. If Americans could dispense with loyalty to England, it was because they possessed an equally powerful allegiance that could take its place.139

Readers responded to Common Sense with a sense of recognition and liberation. And no wonder. Here is Paine’s description of a hypothetical group of people (he called them “colonists”) beginning in an original state of “natural liberty.” Such people would quickly form a society, prompted by “a thousand motives” to “seek assistance and relief” from each other. Only when some individuals, weak in their “attachment” to their fellows, acted out of selfish motives would the colonists move toward the discipline of rudimentary government. Then, said Paine, “Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem.”140 Could readers in British North America fail to recognize their own social and political movement in these lines? Here, surely, was the Patriot system of resistance, the meetings beneath Liberty Trees, assemblies of the many who regulated behavior with the threat of “public disesteem.” What were Patriots doing, then, other than forming a new society, laying the ground for a new political union? Americans could imagine a future of unity, cooperation, mutual benefit, and widespread prosperity. Perhaps they might rest secure in their mutual social, economic, and political ties. Paine’s pages made manifest this lesson of Patriot pacts, for all those who had been taking part in their towns, counties, and provinces. They stood at an extraordinary, pristine, and precious moment.

By spring of ’76, Paine’s words and the actions of George III worked together to convince many colonists of the need to separate from Britain. From the first, colonists had sought to recall the British people to the special relationship that they had assumed bound them to one another. Surely, the colonists believed, when Englishmen realized that Parliament’s policies would cause suffering among their brethren across the Atlantic, they would relent. But the intransigence of British policy makers prompted reconsideration. They came to realize, the Reverend Ezra Stiles said, that repeal of the Stamp Act had not come, after all, from “generous fraternal principles.” With the Townshend Acts, wrote Benjamin Franklin from London, many colonists “reflected how lightly the interest of all America had been estimated here, when the interests of a few of the inhabitants of Great Britain happened to have the smallest competition with it.”141 The British set themselves apart by “their total unfeeling neglect of the most essential concerns of us Americans,” wrote a South Carolinian. New Yorkers noted that the colonies had lost “confidence in the Tenderness of Great Britain.”142 Lingering hopes for reconciliation dwindled in the face of English policy. White southerners recoiled when they heard that the ministry was considering plans “for instigating the slaves to insurrection.” And in the wake of bloody combat between regulars and civilians, there came the news that George III, “with the pretended title of Father of his People,” was dispatching more troops against them.143 From a Patriot perspective, the parent country was guilty of a fundamental failure of feeling. It was Britain that renounced the historic connection, through lack of affection, tenderness, and fraternity. Joined with that belief was another: the security that England failed to offer, the colonists might provide for one another. In June 1776, the Second Continental Congress delegated it to a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to find the precise words.

In this way the Declaration of Independence was made possible by countless prior declarations of neighborly interdependence, declarations made in local meetings, in committee chambers, beneath Liberty Tree, in the press, in the hearing of a broad public. These were declarations made when the well-to-do passed up fancy imported gloves for more common American-made; when colonial women held spinning bees, sacrificed imported tea, and spent their time processing flax instead of buying fine cloth from European merchants. They were declarations made by college students who gave up liquors and merchants and storekeepers who gave up profits when commodities were in short supply. Such acts testified to faith in an ultimately common interest, a common commitment to regard no private interest apart from the whole.

Let me be clear: Patriots surely feared dependency. Their worries about vassalage and slavery were real ones. They feared the seductions of addictive consumer goods. They worried about the dangers of femininity seen in some women’s abandonment of household production and their entry into fashionable consumption. Dependence on the wealthy and powerful, indebtedness to strangers rather than neighbors-these would result in “the slavery and ignorance of the many.” Yet Patriots developed in detail and in practice, and through coercion and publicity, a potent critique of the sort of individual independence that many Americans in the nineteenth century would celebrate. For though the ideal voter and the ideal representative were each independent-not servile, not beholden to great men-that idea did not imply boundless endorsement of private judgment, individual dissent, or private accumulation of property. On the contrary: as Patriots saw it, securing the independence of the many required limits on the independence of the few.

In this context, independence meant sufficient wherewithal to allow dissent from the mighty and powerful; it did not imply independence from the locality, from the opinions of one’s neighbors, from a jury of one’s peers, or “the Tribunal of the Publick.”144 Patriots thus endorsed independence from the powerful, the wealthy, the would-be oppressor, but they opposed-sometimes violently-the independence of individuals from the judgments, standards, and interests of their neighbors. The distinction was logical and necessary for anyone who understood freedom as a matter of social arrangements, a social distribution of property. “It will be highly politic, in every free state, to keep property as equally divided among the inhabitants as possible,” said one Connecticut clergyman in 1773, “and not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches and wealth of a country,” for the wealthy would soon control everyone else.145 Mutual dependence on neighbors represented the sole way for ordinary households to remain free of dependence on greater men. The alternative to “vassalage” and “lordships”-to the dependence of the lowly many on the exalted few-was the mutual dependence and association of the roughly equal. Within rough equality, there was room for rough inequality, so long as such inequality was countered by a shared status of inhabitant, subject, fellow, or neighbor, by constantly acknowledged and presumably continuing relationships with one another. So the tradesmen of New York might challenge the merchants: “Who is the Member of the Community that is absolutely independent of the rest?”146 No one, was the answer, and it followed that no one group might pursue its way without reference to or consultation with the others. Patriots did not require social leveling; they did require arrangements and institutions that secured ongoing mutual commitment and accountability. The independent nation and the empire that many Americans imagined would look much like a neighborhood writ large. The liberty that they sought thus required more than the absence of parliamentary oppression; it required the presence and vitality of neighborly relationships in their own societies.