The American Revolution of 1776 can best be understood by comparing it to the French Revolution of 1789; one led to a political document that empowered the rise of a great nation and the other led to a reign of terror and centuries of devastation. Both claimed liberty and equality but differed greatly how they defined and executed these concepts. Both claimed philosophical roots, but the philosophies differed and were translated into a different function of government.
Daniel Hannan described the American Revolution as more of a Civil War with Britain, claiming the rights of a British citizens they felt denied by the current King. They defined their rights as natural rights, individual rights, and property rights. This new concept of rights came from the philosophy of David Hume, John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers. Government’s role was to protect natural rights, not ordain them. They understood that the human condition was largely permanent, and that man was a flawed, tribal, selfish, and ambitious and that protecting these rights required a government to control man’s flawed nature. They relied on a virtuous people to understand and protect the principles embedded in the Declaration of 1776 but after the failures of the Articles of Confederation they realized virtue alone was unreliable and insufficient. The structure of the Constitution sought and achieved a much more solid foundation.
The task of balancing the rights to flourish with the need to limit man’s flawed nature was brilliantly captured in Federalist #51:
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The French Revolution was a rejection of all institutions, even the calendar, with no clear replacement in mind. Where the American founders and framers has carefully studied political and social systems, the French counted on a new democracy to write new rules. This new democracy descended into a Jacobin mob, as unfettered democracies often do. Government was the source of human perfection, not limited to protecting rights. Instead of recognizing individual rights power was exercised for the general will and dissent was brutally eliminated. This supremacy of the general will infected the rise of socialism and its perversions in communism and fascism. The general will and government’s role required new priests to discern their will and demagogues rose to fill that role. Napoleon, Mussolini, Lenin, and Hitler all played the same role. Democracy and demagogues share the same root word.
American movements also came to reject the founding principles. John Calhoun rejected the natural rights foundation of the Declaration to intellectually justify slavery in the south, not as a necessary evil, but as a social good. Post Civil War American universities adopted the theories of Hegelian historicism rejecting not just the founding principles but any principles with the pretense of permanence. Pragmatism became a formal American school of philosophy spun from Hegelian historicism that also rejected the permanence of any principles. Progressivism, especially Woodrow Wilson, rejected the values of the founding principles as only contingent on its time period.
This same historicism of Hegel birthed the European socialist movements that turned the continent into an abattoir. American Progressives were constrained by the Constitution and a civic culture that retained an individual interpretation of freedom and liberty. FDR reframed progressivism in constitutional terms, replacing the term with ‘liberalism’ (distorting its original meaning), which remained until recently when progressivism has re-emerged.
In our new revolutionary atmosphere, we face a Jacobin moment where our political and social institutions are called into question by woke vigilantes who follow in the footsteps of Calhoun’s racism, historicists, pragmatists, and the early progressives in challenging the philosophy and principles of the founding. Reform is always seductive; comparing visible faults and errors with untested intentions or in the case today nothing constructive. Like the French Jacobins the woke wish to deconstruct (destroy) the existing order in the name of systemic racism, critical race theory, vague concepts of equality, microaggressions, intersectionality or whatever new intellectual trend oozes out of our citadels of credentialed ignorance.
Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King used the words of the Declaration to fulfill its promise. The new woke vigilantes wish to deconstruct our founding because of inherent flaws. History follows no single path of explanation whether it be historicism or the 1619 Project. It is a complex unfolding of human paradoxes and unpredictable events, yet somehow our progress, particularly in the last 300 years has been enormous by any means you choose: longevity, social justice, reduction of worldwide poverty, science, commerce, education, and arts. It is foolish to think this enormous betterment was inevitable or that it cannot be reversed.
Building a nation is much harder than ‘deconstructing’ one. It requires critical thinking and tremendous compromise. The Constitution was a fragile project and could have failed any number of times; it was framed by existing threats, the failures of the Articles of Confederation, thoughtfully considered philosophies of government with a keen eye to the realities of the colonies and the human condition. We see little inclination among the new ‘woke’ crowd to consider any compromise or even engage in civil or logical discussion.
Our greatest question is whether the founding principles still hold value and serve us better by being extended to more citizens as we have done since the ratification of the Constitution, or whether they should be rejected because of the imperfections of our founders and the moral compromises we made to form the union. If we are in a revolutionary moment, we should decide if we want to follow the path of the American Revolution of 1776 or the French Revolution of 1789.