Has The American Revolution Ended?
Two key revolutions took place towards the end of the 18th century that have come to define the world as it is today — the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Both were popular uprisings against the monarchy, both were bloody, and both stunned the world because there was no historical precedent for movements of such ideological potency and force.
The French Revolution climaxed with the beheadings of King Louis XVI and his queen, Mary-Antoinette, but that didn’t cause it to come to a quick, quiet conclusion. Instead, French politics oscillated wildly in the decades to come (with Napoleon making a notable appearance). France finally settled into the modern democratic state it is today after World War 2.
The American Revolution, on the other hand, came to a fairly settled conclusion with the Declaration of Independence. Once the objective of the revolution — to be an independent people free from tyranny — was achieved, attention turned towards creating a Constitution that would stand the test of time. History testifies that this goal has largely been achieved. In 1787, the contours of what constitutes the core values of the United States were drawn out, with generations of Americans making contributions in the centuries since.
In the simplest terms, the birth of the modern French state was revolution, revolution against revolution, and more revolution. The United States, on the other hand, largely coalesced around a common Constitution after independence was achieved. First Amendment values like the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly received widespread acceptance and were never seriously challenged, even during the civil war. Revolution is spoken of in the past tense — it is settled history.
Revolutions are a curious thing — they are celebrated when they succeed and condemned as wicked or foolish when they don’t. Revolutions also need to have a definite end; at some point, people need to come together and decide that the objectives of the revolution have been achieved. They then need to work towards restoring some sense of societal normalcy. The rule of law needs to be re-established. A nation in perpetual revolution is no nation at all.
It is therefore notable that talks of revolution are making their rounds among American political discourse again via the alt-right. The January 6 storming of the US capitol was preceded by calls for a new American revolution. A few Republican leaders even called for a “1776 moment.”
Invoking the American Revolution to settle a democratic dispute has far-reaching consequences. As the saying goes, “all’s fair in love and war.” Well, revolution is war. If a group of people can justify starting a revolution, they can easily justify anything else — including violence.
In France, large-scale demonstrations take place on a regular basis, regardless of the ideological bend of the government in charge. The Guardian once published a piece asking, “Why do the French protest so much?” The latest example of a large-scale French protest is the “yellow vests” movement that has made global headlines.
French protests have always had a tinge of “revolution” about them, with anarchy and violence often featuring heavily. Perhaps the convoluted and distressing nature of the French Revolution and its aftermath have left an indelible mark on the French psyche. In France, the angst and anxiety for change always seem to manifest as calls for mini-revolutions in the guise of protests.
However, the American way has traditionally been different. In the United States, everyone gets to have their say and participate in robust debates. Then, quietly and without fanfare, people come together to work towards the common good. Large-scale national protests that are violent and extended in nature are rare in American history.
The rise of revolutionary rhetoric among the American alt-right movement may herald the start of a dark new chapter in American politics. If people feel that existing democratic institutions are woefully insufficient for redress, they might start to seriously entertain thoughts of revolution. After all, that was what the founding fathers did. If this dangerous strand of thinking spreads, the United States is in real danger of domestic terrorism.
Revolutions come and go, but good people make the most of them and try to build better societies in their wake. However, a revolution that starts on false pretexts is bound to cause much harm. It is up to us to learn from our past, honor our history, and put the brakes on dangerous fantasies that will put us all on the road to pointless ruin.