America's Unique Happy-Ending Revolution

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a con­tributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nationally known magazines.

Unlike Hollywood films, big revo­lutions rarely have happy endings. The victory of the parliamentary forces over the royalists in Eng­land in the seventeenth century was pretty mild, by the standards of some later upheavals; there was no indiscriminate massacre of the defeated, no wholesale spoliation of one class by another. But many Englishmen who op­posed Charles II must have felt a sense of frustration and disil­lusionment when they saw Crom­well, backed by his soldiers, driv­ing out what remained of the Parliament that had begun the struggle and substituting for ex­cesses of the royal prerogative the naked power of the sword.

Frustration and disillusionment also marked the course of the French Revolution, after it had begun in an atmosphere of pro­fessions of brotherhood and wordy manifestoes. The merciless guillo­tine, first used against aristocrats and their suspected sympathizers, was turned by the Jacobins against the Girondists, then by the more moderate Jacobins, in self-defense, against Robespierre and his associates in revolutionary dictatorship. The wheel came full circle when the glittering adven­ture of Napoleon’s Empire crashed in military defeat and the Bour­bons, shorn, to be sure, of much of their former power, returned.

Frustration and disillusionment in the Russian Revolution were on a still grander scale. Taine’s bit­ter image of revolutionary France, "the crocodile devouring its young," was still truer for Soviet Russia. The phase of slaughtering many of the old revolutionaries came more slowly in Russia than in France; but it was still more sweeping and thorough when it did come.

One need only call the roll of the Founding Fathers of Soviet communism, the seven men who constituted the Politbureau of the Communist Party at the time of Lenin’s death: Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky. By 1940 this roll consisted of one all-powerful dictator, Stalin, and six obituary notices. Zinoviev and Kamenev, Rykov, and Bukharin were all shot after show trials conducted with much patently false evidence. Tomsky killed himself rather than go through with such a trial; and Trotsky, barricaded and guarded as he was in his Mexican refuge, did not escape the murderous blow of one of Stalin’s numerous professional assassins.

Sharp Contrast

What a contrast to these re­peated scenes of bloodstained tyr­anny was the peaceful aftermath of the American Revolution! Of three revolutions that profoundly moved the minds and hearts of men—the American, the French, the Russian—the American re­mained by far the most loyal to its ideals. There were no tumbrils dragging new batches of victims to the guillotine; there was no tragic figure of a revolutionary Mme. Roland crying: "0 Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name." There were no factional splits, no fierce power grabs among the men who led the Amer­ican Revolution to victory.

Where there were differences of opinion and emphasis among the Founding Fathers, as in the case of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, these were often bridged over in an atmosphere of abiding mutual respect and friendship. By a curious coincidence Jefferson and Adams, after carrying on a long correspondence, died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, of which Jefferson was the author and Adams the vindicator in many political writ­ings. Americans may feel justified pride in their patriotic heritage when they set against the fustian declamations of demagogic dicta­tors of our own and earlier times the mixture of humility and dig­nity with which George Washing­ton ended his historic Farewell Message:

Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am uncon­scious of intentional error, I am nev­ertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. What­ever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or miti­gate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incom­petent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.

Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love toward it which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expecta­tion that retreat in which I promise myself to realize without alloy the sweet enjoyment of partaking in the midst of my fellow-citizens the be­nign influence of good laws under a free government—the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

Why was it that Washington was no Cromwell, setting himself up as a military dictator after leading to victory in a war against tyranny, and that the young American Republic did not experi­ence the fratricidal slaughter of its revolutionary leaders by each others’ hands and the changes in ideals that marked the aftermaths of the French and Russian up­heavals? Many reasons may be cited. But surely one of the most important was that the American Revolution set for itself realistic, non-utopian goals, did not set class against class, and did not make promises which were out of line with human nature and hu­man capacity.

From Utopia to Terror

In France and in Russia there was the same fateful pattern of the utopian dream turning into a nightmare of terrorism. As Burke shows so vividly in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the ideologues of the French Revolu­tion placed an exaggerated esti­mate on what unassisted reason could accomplish in setting up a new political and social order. They believed in the regeneration of man and society through the proclamation and attempted im­plementation of doctrinaire ideas.

When the results of the experi­ment were, in many ways, unsuc­cessful, the idea could not be tol­erated that the ideas themselves might be open to criticism. The fault must lie with wicked, mali­cious, hostile individuals; and the guillotine began to work at full capacity to eliminate these in­dividuals. The Jacobins of the French Revolution—who had much in common, psychologically, with Soviet communists, even if they operated in an earlier phase of industrial development—relied on the Paris mob for their political support; one of their leaders, St. Just, declared: "Les malheureux sont la puissance de la terre" ("The unfortunate are the power of the earth.") Over a century later the Soviet Bolsheviks, or Communists, advanced this idea with all the trappings of Marxism and justified all their actions of violence, cruelty, and dictatorship with the excuse that they were acting as champions of the op­pressed and exploited proletariat.

The inevitable development of a revolution that sets out with this appeal to mass poverty into ter­rorist methods of government—which, in turn, destroy the more generous ideals of the revolution­ary impulse—is well conveyed in the following passage in Hannah Arendt’s recently published eru­dite and perceptive work, On Rev­olution:

No revolution has ever solved the "social question" and liberated men from the predicament of want, but all revolutions, with the exception of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, have followed the example of the French Revolution and used and mis­used the mighty forces of misery and destitution in their struggle against tyranny or oppression. And, although the whole record of past revolutions demonstrates beyond doubt that every attempt to solve the social problem with political means leads into terror, and that it is terror which sends revolutions to their doom, it can hardly be denied that to avoid this fatal mistake is almost impossible when a revolution breaks out under conditions of mass pov­erty.

No Glittering Promises

Among the big revolutions, the American was unique in two ways. It made no appeal to class hatred and class envy. And it made no glittering demagogic promises to cure all human ills by some over­night reconstruction of society. Reading through the basic docu­ments of the American Revolution and the work of political construc­tion which followed the successful elimination of British rule—the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitu­tion—one finds no appeals to pro­scription, to hatred, to spoliation. One finds only a reasoned state­ment of the grievances which led Americans to the conviction that the connection with the British Crown must be severed and a spirited vindication of the inalien­able rights of free men, under God and natural law.

In the same way, the Constitu­tion is notably sparing of prom­ises that the state will give the people who live under it this or that material benefit. On the other hand, it is full of guaran­tees against arbitrary abuses of governmental power. The under­lying assumption is that a society of self-reliant individuals, pro­tected against governmental dic­tation and regimentation, will find within itself the necessary combination of individual effort and cooperative resources to cre­ate roads and schools and all the other prerequisites of civilized living in what was then largely an undeveloped wilderness. And what impressed Alexis de Tocque­ville and other observant Euro­peans who saw America in its early stage of development was the instinct and the capacity of Americans to dispense with state aid, to solve their problems on a basis of individual, voluntary, co­operative, and local energies. The result of this philosophy of gov­ernment is described by Tocque­ville as follows:

If the opinion which the citizen entertains of himself is exaggerated, it is at least salutary; he unhesi­tatingly confides in his own powers, which appear to him to be all-suffi­cient. When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly it may be connected with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other indi­viduals and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the state might have been in his posi­tion; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far ex­ceeds all that the government could have done.

Room for Failure

Whereas the French Jacobins and the Russian communists were fanatics, convinced that they were justified in resorting to the most ruthless measures in order to maintain the absolute power with which they believed they could bring a paradise on earth to their followers, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were pre-eminently men of reason, con­vinced of their own fallibility and of the fallibility of those who would follow them.

Well versed in history and fa­miliar with human nature as a result of their own active political careers, these men recognized as the gravest threat to the free in­stitutions which they wished to establish on an enduring basis, excessive concentration of state power, regardless of who might possess this power or for what purposes it might be used. As Madison puts it in No. 47 of The Federalist:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judicial, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether heredi­tary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very defi­nition of tyranny.

John Adams expressed this idea still more succinctly in his De­fense of the Constitution when he wrote: "Power is always abused when unlimited and unbalanced."

Checks and Balances

Whereas the evolution in France under the Jacobins and in the So­viet Union under the communists was toward sheer absolutism, with no element of effective check and balance, the American Constitu­tion provides for three independ­ent, coequal branches of govern­ment, each entrusted with care­fully defined functions, each for­bidden to trespass on the spheres of the other two. Because of this strong belief that the best of men cannot be safely trusted with too much power, many assurances against abuses of administrative power, even when sanctioned by majority vote, are imbedded in the Constitution. John Adams, the most profound political thinker among the framers of the Constitution, envisaged the art of maintaining stable government under free institutions as the creation of an effective equilib­rium, with one form of power checking another and excluding the possibility that government might develop into a monster, a "leviathan"—to use the term of the seventeenth century political scientist, Thomas Hobbes—that would so dominate and submerge its citizens as to mold them like robots for its purposes.

It is a modern fashion to de­mand a strong executive and an "affirmative state" that will do for the individual many of the things which were formerly left to his exertion and initiative. But it is significant that the Consti­tution, the quintessence of the ripe wisdom of the men who won American liberty and then gave liberty a framework of law and orderly self-government, devotes as much attention to telling the executive and legislative branches of government what they may not do as to specifying what they are supposed to do. It is interesting to run through the Constitution and see how often the words "No" and "Not" recur:

Congress shall make no law re­specting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….

The right of the people to be se­cure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated….

Excessive bail shall not be re­quired, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted…

The enumeration in the Constitu­tion of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people…

No bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed.

No capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbe­fore directed to be taken.

The last of these emphatic "Nots" and "Nos" made it im­possible to impose a graduated income tax until, in an evil hour, this grant to the government of an unlimited lien on all the earn­ings of its citizens was author­ized by means of a constitutional amendment.

Stern restrictions on the power of governing authority is a note­worthy characteristic of the re­public which grew out of the American Revolution. Another is a conspicuous absence of prom­ises to make the individual wealthy, healthy, or wise by state action. One finds in America‘s Constitution no bribes, no hand­outs, no utopian promises.

And just because the Constitu­tion offers a workable scheme of free government, not a blueprint for paradise on earth, it experi­enced a happy ending, free from the factional strife and terror and tyranny that always follow when far-reaching demagogic promises prove unrealizable.




Ideas on Liberty
The Crisis of Social Security

It has been well said that, while we used to suffer from social evils, we now suffer from the remedies for them. The difference is that, while in former times the social evils were gradually disappearing with the growth of wealth, the remedies we have introduced are beginning to threaten the continuance of that growth of wealth on which all future improvement depends…. Though we may have speeded up a little the conquest of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness, we may in the future do worse even in that struggle when the chief dangers will come from inflation, paralyzing taxation, coercive labor unions, an ever increasing dominance of government in education, and a social service bureaucracy with far-reaching arbitrary powers—dangers from which the individual cannot escape by his own efforts and which the momentum of the overextended machinery of government is likely to increase rather than mitigate.

F. A. HAYEK, The Constitution of Liberty