August 14, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
When you go to Mount Vernon, the guides in the main house proudly point out an amazing piece of history in the front hallway. There, so close you could touch it if it weren’t behind glass, is the key to the Bastille prison – a gift to George Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette, who had served with Washington in the Revolutionary War and then himself played a role in the French Revolution. The key recalls Bastille Day, July 14, 1789, when the people of Paris stormed King Louis’s hated prison. It was supposed to symbolize the unlocking of liberty by these two revolutions.
But the French Revolution took a very different turn from the American. In France, revolution opened Pandora’s box, leading to a bloody Terror that ended with the rise of Napoleon, a generalissimo who eventually crowned himself emperor. In this the French Revolution was not alone: the Soviet Revolution gave us Lenin, Stalin, and the gulags. China had Mao’s Cultural Revolution, with its cult of personality and millions dead or imprisoned. The Iranian Revolution ended with Ayatollah Khomeini and radical Islam rising to power in the Middle East.
Now, with so much revolutionary sentiment sweeping the world in places like Egypt, it’s worth asking ourselves the question: Why did the American Revolution produce a regime of constitutional liberty when so many other revolutions have brought tyranny or disorder – or both?
I hope it will not seem patriotic boastfulness to say that the American Revolution was an exception because the Americans had the right principles and habits. We believed that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and that government’s fundamental job is to protect those rights – not to bring about social utopia or economic paradise or the rule of God on earth. The French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions were different. They did not just want to recognize the rights of human beings; they wanted to remake society completely and even transform human nature itself. Everyone in France had to become “citizen”: no other title or attachment could matter anymore. Likewise, everyone in Russia was to be made into a “comrade,” a “new Soviet man,” and millions and millions in China had to be “re-educated.” In Iran, the people had to become believers in the veliyat-e-faqih – the rule of God on earth.
These revolutions had no time or place for anything that stood in their way. Life, liberty, or property? Property had to be confiscated in the name of revolutionary fraternity or a classless society. Liberty had to be curtailed because no one could be free to dissent from the “general will” or the vanguard of the people. The sacred right to life? “Enemies of the people” got show trials or, more often, summary execution. Because the revolutions had limitless purposes, they had in principle no stopping point. Everything had to be overthrown and transformed, and all means were justified.
The American Revolution was different. It sought to bring a “new order of the ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum as our dollar bill says in the Latin taken from the Great Seal of the United States), but that order was built on principles in the Declaration of Independence that inherently limited the scope of revolution. Americans knew that political truth comes from the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” which lends a solemn lawfulness to the cause that does not permit casual violence or unjust actions in the name of “revolution.”
We also understood that government gets its “just power” from “the consent of the governed,” which means that government is the creation of the people, not vice-versa, and it must have their agreement to rule them. This excludes the use of violence by revolutionary “leaders” to force others to comply with their pronouncements. Our leaders like Washington did not try it; he handed back his military power to Congress after the Revolutionary War in 1783. Nor would the American people or its army have tolerated any other course of action, even from Washington. As James Madison said:
I have always believed that if General Washington had yielded to a usurping ambition, he would have found an insuperable obstacle in the incorruptibility of a sufficient portion of those under his command, and that the exalted praise due to him & them, was derived not from a forbearance to effect a revolution within their power, but from a love of liberty and of country which there was abundant reason to believe, no facility of success could have seduced.
And the Americans realized that protecting “certain unalienable rights” restricts the size and intrusion of government once it is established, and leaves space for personal freedoms like speech, press, and religion. It is no accident that the state constitutions created in the midst of the Revolution were the products of deep deliberation and tried carefully to protect individual rights, embrace the rule of law, and expect real republican virtue from the people.
America was also different because we had been practicing the principles of our revolution long before we famously proclaimed them on July 4, 1776. As James Madison said in Federalist 39, republican government was part of the “genius” of the American people even before 1776. We had been governing ourselves locally from the time of the first Puritans. By the time the shooting started in 1775, we were used to the rule of law and to the rights and responsibilities of freedom.
Can we say the same about countries today that are experiencing revolution? Take Egypt, for example. In the early 20th century, Egyptian elites tried to bring about democracy, but it failed. Then Egypt flirted with Arab nationalism, which is still a force. And for a long time one of the centers of opposition has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which has never really given up the idea of adopting sharia law.
Admittedly, in the past year Egypt has acquired some of the elements of democracy like vibrant newspapers, presidential debates, and multi-party elections. Such limited habits of democracy, however, are not enough without underlying principles of freedom.
A free society is within the capacity of any country, including countries like Egypt. But are today’s revolutionaries more like their French or American predecessors? Do they see the glory of revolution in storming the Bastille and tearing down the old oppressor? Or in creating a regime of self-government that respects all of the individual rights of citizens, including economic freedom, freedom of speech and, especially, religious freedom?
If history is any guide, we should be cautious: revolutions that give birth to free societies are exceedingly rare. The French Revolution eventually did, but only after many fits and starts. France is, after all, on its Fifth Republic. That’s because a freedom revolution not only needs statesmen like Washington rather than Napoleon, it must have a revolutionary spirit animated by the right principles and moderated by the right habits. We Americans had them, I am grateful to say.
But if we are going to keep the Revolution, we have to conserve those principles and habits. Every generation must learn them anew. With them, liberty thrives. Without them, liberty dies.