Spirit of ’76

Spirit of ’76 (sentiment)
by Wikipedia

Historian Mellen Chamberlain wrote that the spirit of ’76 was embodied by Levi Preston, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. Chamberlain asked Preston, then 91 years old, “Why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775? My histories tell me that you men took up arms against ‘intolerable oppressions.'” Preston responded:

Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Smith
(commenting on Shay’s Rebellion)
Paris, November 13, 1787

What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution
by Paul Douglas Newman
p. xii

While one recent historian located Shays’s Rebellion as “The American Revolution’s Final Battle” and another described the Whiskey Rebellion as the “Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution,” the Fries Rebels would have disagreed with both implications. Rather than a story consigned to paper and concluded, the Revolution to them was a perpetual narrative for successive generations to retell, an experience to be relived, and an enduring struggle to be reengaged. Their rebellion testified to the democratizing forces in politics and society unleashed by the American Revolution. To them, the Revolution was more than a War for Independence, the founding of a national republic, or the parchment documents that defined each. It was a political, economic, and social process of expanding popular sovereignty. The Revolution was a spirit to be constantly revived and a set of political principles to be frequently redefined— always in a democratic direction— to provide more local and personal control of daily life as well as increased power over broader collective policies. The Fries Rebels believed they were upholding the Revolution’s promise and founding ideals, even when they engaged in their own discriminatory, majoritarian behavior against some of their neighbors. Perhaps other Americans equally estimated that the people could directly expand their own role in local, state, and federal government, making it more democratic and less republican in the fluid days of the post-Revolutionary political settlement when parties were only beginning to form and authority seemed so weak. Even if this was not the case, the Fries Rebels appear to have thought that way, and if we listen closely enough, we can hear them tell us so.

Benjamin Rush in 1787
“Address to the People of the United States”

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection. […]

PATRIOTS of 1774, 1775, 1778—HEROES of 1778, 1779, 1780! come forward! your country demands your services!—Philosophers and friends to mankind, com forward! your country demands your studies and speculations! Lovers of peace and order, who declined taking part in the late war, come forward! your country forgives your timidity, and demands your influence and advice! Hear her proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, “THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!”

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.