Sunday, December 28, 2014

"We always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

Allen Guelzo is the Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and has written extensively about the Civil War. I recently read his very good account of the Gettysburg battle: Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. In "Democracy and Nobility: Was the Civil War a second American Revolution?" he begins by defining "revolution":
...[L]et us be clear about what a revolution is: A revolution is an overturning, a reversal of polarity, a radical discontinuity with what has gone before. It means, as the sociologist Jeff Goodwin wrote, “not only mass mobilization and regime change, but also more or less rapid and fundamental social, economic and/or cultural change, during or soon after the struggle for state power.”

Stacked against that definition, our founding revolution, and the revolutions that succeeded it, may not be so revolutionary after all. At first, the American Revolution presents us with a whopping set of discontinuities: The king of England disappears and is replaced by a notion of sovereignty residing in the people; democratic governments emerge in the new American states and coalesce in an unprecedented piece of formal statecraft, the Constitution; the property of prominent American Tories is confiscated; law-codes must be rewritten, and a major debate takes place over whether English common law should still retain authority or be superseded by legislative statute. But much of this revolutionary reshaping happened simply by elevating the revolutionaries’ already-in-place experiments in self-government to permanent status. “We began our Revolution, already possessed of government, and, comparatively, of civil liberty,” said Daniel Webster. “Our ancestors had from the first been accustomed in a great measure to govern themselves” and “had little else to do than to throw off the paramount authority of the parent state. Enough was still left, both of law and of organization, to conduct society in its accustomed course, and to unite men together for a common object.”

In 1843, when one of the last survivors of Lexington and Concord was interviewed by an overanxious antiquarian about his reasons for revolution, Captain Levi Preston of Danvers replied simply, “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.” In other words, our revolution was a revolution against a revolution, and in defense of an already-existing (albeit de facto) democratic order. The real revolution, we might say, was the attempt of the king of England to meddle in those arrangements. .... [more]
That understanding of revolution is, of course, why a conservative like Edmund Burke could understand and support the grievances of the American colonists but utterly oppose the French revolutionaries.