All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 1975

The Great American Revolution

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

It has become the fashion in our country to refer to every change or proposal for change as a “revolution.”

When farmers first began to set up organizations to promote their interests it was dubbed the Farm Revolution. The movement to secure for black citizens the rights to which they are entitled was soon referred to as the Black Revolution. People of late have become aware of the dangers that lurk in water and air pollution; and so, in press and on television the Ecological Revolution has blossomed. Students become disenchanted with some course of study, or with dormitory arrangements; and when they become vocal about it — lo, there is a Campus Revolution!

And so it goes, ad nauseum. Let anybody advocate a sharp change of some kind, whether in the method of electing a congressman or choosing a village alderman, whether the aim is to lower prices, or to cut taxes, or to get better fire protection, or whatever, in no time at all he will be said to be heading a “revolution.”

As a result of this resort to rhetorical pyrotechnics the word “revolution” has become commonplace, bland, watered-down — and dangerously deceptive. With respect to the real implications of revolution we have gone off into a kind of semantic euphoria. The word not only has no terror for us; it has become a mere symbol of change — change that may be somewhat sudden, dramatic and far-reaching, to be sure, but is on the whole beneficial and in the line of human progress and betterment. This of course is an illusion, a self-deception of tragic significance. All Americans and their institutions are the worse for it, because they are imperiled by it.

Several years ago an American politician who had achieved considerable eminence, and who at least had the merit of making political debate a more literate exercise, made a trip through several of the South American countries. Wherever he saw evidence of political progress, or even discerned signs of impending change that he thought would be beneficial, he trotted out the “revolutionary” symbolism. The United States had been born of a revolution; we sympathized with the aspirations of all people who were trying to better their condition; and, in short, it seemed he was all for bigger and better revolutions among our southern neighbors.

Was he an incendiary, inciting those people to violence? Not at all. He was a gentle man who, I am sure, abhorred violence. The trouble was that he was using the word “revolution” in its watered-down sense. He was thinking of better government, probably some social security type legislation, some much-needed slum clearance, more and better education, wider observance of democratic procedures, and the like. He did not realize, apparently, that to most of his listeners “revolution” didn’t mean the peaceful substitution of what he would call “progressive” ideas for what he considered “reactionary” ones. To most of them the term meant civil strife, political upheaval, barricades, blood in the streets, fire in the palace, and shouts of a la pared — to the wall with them!

Americans who talk glibly of the “revolution” they hope to see (meaning, of course, the adoption of their particular brand of political or economic salvation) need to understand that in much of the world, especially in the Marxist dominated areas, there is nothing mild, bland, peaceful, gradual or merely “progressive” about the interpretation of that word. It is also clear, alas, that there is a growing element right here at home who measure revolution in the same scales, as their bombs, fires and rhetoric abundantly testify. No doubt there are some well-meaning people, both here and abroad, who see in Marxism only a peaceful, if somewhat drastic, political and economic program —just another philosophy of government. But such people are hopeless dupes. No matter how mild-mannered he may seem to be, cross a Marxist and you are apt to get the vituperative scorn of intolerance; scratch him and you get the blood of a revolutionist. He doesn’t contemplate a nice, friendly, gradual and evolutionary reordering of society. He means action, violent action — fire, bombs, executions and the iron heel — all, of course, in the name of justice and humanity.

Is this an exaggeration? Ask of the ghosts of those Russian farmers, the kulaks, who were “liquidated” by the millions, their crime being that they owned a little land and did not want to have it taken away from them. Ask at the graves of those nameless Chinese peasants who were mowed down by the murderous fire of Mao’s executioners. Ask the people of Latvia; ask the Estonians; ask the Hungarians; ask the family or friends of those East Germans whose only offense was their desire to escape to freedom, and who left their bullet-shattered bodies beside the imprisoning Wall as testimony to the brutal efficiency of “revolution.”

At this mention of the Berlin Wall and its victims, someone may well summon up the specter of Hitler, and remind us that blood and tears and unspeakable cruelty were practiced by that madman and his goons — and that theirs was not a communist regime. And the answer is: quite true — and beside the point. Or rather, in support of the point. In the first place, the Hitlerian movement started out as a socialist putsch. Even the hated name Nazi was only an abbreviation of the German for National Socialist. But it soon went far beyond the relatively mild proposals of the English Fabians and became a totalitarian dictatorship. And it achieved its ends by revolution — not so declared, but so executed. From the Marxist point of view it was a revolution in reverse; but it was a revolution, none the less. The techniques of brutality practiced by the Russian and Chinese revolutionaries of the left were equally effective instruments for the German revolution of the right.

What’s to Celebrate?

Now I can imagine someone echoing an old and familiar refrain: “But why get excited about revolution? Our nation is a product of revolution. Right now we are beginning a year-long celebration of….”

Of what, friend? A revolution? That’s what a lot of people think and say, because our long-ago War for Independence got tagged in the history books as a “revolutionary” war. It was not that at all, in the true sense of the word. It was a fight for independence, not for radical social and economic change. The Colonial leaders were not out to rewrite the laws of England. They didn’t propose to abolish Parliament, or fire the Prime Minister, or sink the Royal Navy. They had many grievances against King George, and they set them forth boldly; but they didn’t suggest dethroning him. They didn’t want to destroy him, either as king or man, any more than they wanted to destroy the British government. They simply wanted to be free of both — to escape the frustrations imposed by a nagging and rather stupid bureaucracy. They were quite content to see the mother country survive and prosper; and when they had finally won their war and achieved Independence, they based their institutions and philosophy of government on the same concepts of individual liberty that had long been dear to the hearts of Englishmen.

Actually the “revolution” that we ought to venerate was not a thing of armies and battles. Nor did it begin, as orators like to assert, with those shots that were fired “by the rude bridge” — shots that were “heard round the world.” That episode, and even the bloody fighting at Bunker Hill, were but tragic small scenes in a continuing drama that had started long before. Some forty years later, an aged John Adams, looking back, was to write that even the war with England was “no part of the Revolution.” And he went on to assert that “the Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”

Maybe the old gentleman retrospectively overestimated the sentiment that prevailed during those fifteen years. Probably most of the people were not greatly agitated in their “hearts and minds.” Impatient — yes. Disgusted — to be sure. Fed up — of course. But such disgruntlement is not the stuff of revolution, which must be fed with the fires of fundamental beliefs and convictions. Even in 1776 there was yet no overwhelming desire for the radical change of independence, and small appetite for a war to achieve it — and this despite great indignation over the irritating small tyrannies (and some great ones) of a succession of stupid British ministries.

The Idea of Liberty

But in a deeper sense the “hearts and minds” phrase was significant; and its symbolism reached much farther back than the fifteen years Adams mentioned. It covered the whole lifespan of the Colonials, and that of their grandparents. For there was a revolution going on and slowly coming to maturity, in the thinking of men concerning the institution of government, their proper relationship to it, and its effect upon their welfare and happiness. The philosophy back of that “revolution” had been dimly apprehended by many and brilliantly expressed by a few, back through the years. Even crusty Samuel Johnson, no friend of American Independence, was a stout exponent of individual liberty, the desire for which was at the core of the American cause, not only during the war years, but in the attitude of the Colonials for decades before.

And nearly a century before the Second Continental Congress formulated its great Declaration, John Locke had written that “rulers hold their power not absolutely but conditionally, government being essentially a moral trust, forfeited if the conditions are not followed by the trustees.” That principle, nearly a century later, was to be the essence of the Colonial position. In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson phrased it thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that… governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The words were the Virginian’s; the sentiments were those of Locke, rephrased but identical as to purport — which was that the citizen and not the government is the source of authority; and that it, not he, is the creature. It was the sentiment foreshadowed long before Locke in the Petition of Right, the Second Magna Carta, so to speak, which was wrung from Charles I in 1628.

The specific findings of that landmark document dealt with very practical and mundane matters. Taxes were to be levied only with the consent of Parliament, which represented the people, rather than the Crown. A man’s home was his castle, inviolable by the military. No martial law could be imposed in time of peace. Trial by jury was guaranteed to all. These are all things that are now taken for granted; but they were won for the masses of men only by long, stubborn, and sometimes painful, persistence. They were often flouted in later years, these principles; but they were never forgotten and never abandoned by Englishmen. It was the passion for individual liberty embodied in such findings that was the real American revolution — long developing over the decades, and now in 1776 come once more to the test of sacrifice and the harsh proof of war.

Framing a Constitution

And when the struggle for Independence was won, and the weary but victorious Colonials set out to formulate and establish their own new nation, they clung to those simple but powerful “revolutionary” ideas. To a constitutional convention they sent men who were thoroughly acquainted with the physical make-up and political needs of the young nation. They were also men who were generally well versed in the writings of the great social and political philosophers of their century — not only with John Locke whose “social contract” philosophy was at the heart of Anglo-American political ideals, but with the eminent French magistrate and essayist, the Baron de Montesquieu, whose doctrine of the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial functions of government became a cornerstone of American policy, and with the work of Sir William Blackstone, the noted expounder of law in terms of its human impact.

The wisdom of these men and other sages, plus their own broad experience in government and their passion for freedom and justice, was put by the delegates into the making of a Constitution for the new republic — a document generally regarded, not only here but throughout the world, as the nearest thing to perfection yet achieved in the realm of fundamental law. Note please the slight qualification in that phrase “the nearest thing.” Nobody I suppose, would claim it is perfect. It has some vague areas and some contradictions. More than one President has had difficulty reconciling some of its particular provisions with its over-all declaration of purposes — as when Lincoln, in order to “insure domestic tranquility,” suspended the right of habeas corpus — an action that was clearly in violation of certain Articles of the Bill of Rights. But such problems are to be expected in a complex society — which is one reason why the President is the Chief Executive. It is part of his job to cut Gordian knots. He will be called on from time to time to make close decisions, and must occasionally determine whether the specific provision of some perfectly good and sound Article is at that particular moment outweighed by the general-welfare-common-defense-domestic-tranquility clause. That’s why he is there. And besides, there is always final recourse to the Supreme Court, which was created by the Constitution itself to resolve all such soul-searching dilemmas.

The Test of Time

At all events, there it stands, the mainstay of fundamental law. Amended from time to time to meet current needs (and sometimes to satisfy current prejudices), and buttressed by its integral Bill of Rights, it has served a growing, geographically expanding nation for 187 years and is still alive and well. Under it the nation grew great and strong domestically, and reached also a position of world leadership. It withstood the shattering experience of the Civil War, weathered the stresses of two devastating world conflicts, and has served as a guide to many of the so-called emerging nations of the present generation. Even the most shattering crisis of our history, involving a change of leadership under conditions that could have been utterly demoralizing, only served to demonstrate the strength and dependability of the political system which it embodies.

All this is not meant to be a starry-eyed exercise in jingoistic patriotism. Our nation is, after all, governed by men — biped creatures of limited intelligence and fallible judgment, like the citizens who elect them to office. Political man especially, being strongly ego-centered, can not always be expected to place the public interest above his own. We have had our political trickeries, our scandals, our crooks, our criminals, our injustices. We have also made our national blunders in both domestic and foreign affairs. All of which is simply to say that we are human beings, who sin and err in about the same ratio of imperfection as is exhibited by other peoples of our beautiful Blue Planet.

But a point to remember is that our country was not supposed to be inhabited by supermen. The framers of our basic law had no idea of founding another Utopia. They were not erecting an eleemosynary institution, nor building a house of correction. They were not out to make men perfect. They were intent only on creating a governmental mechanism under which men, perfect or otherwise, would be free to realize their full potential — to gain whatever status of wealth, achievement or intellectual attainment their abilities would enable them to achieve.

To dream up such a state, endow it with all powers necessary for sovereignty, yet limit and hedge those powers about with provisions for the protection of the average citizen; to provide an ambiance for the fullest development of which men are capable, and yet leave them free to do with their lives what seems best to them; to exact of them only that minimum of conformity necessary for the protection of all; in a word, to create a governmental condition for the greatest possible exercise and enjoyment of personal freedom — this was the dream, this was the practical reality, this was the final outcome of “The Great American Revolution.”

The question now to be answered by the American people is, Shall the dream endure? Shall the “revolution” continue to bear its fruit of freedom and opportunity? Or shall our nation, like other great States, ancient and modern, sink slowly under the burden of political expediency, bureaucratic ambition, unlimited debt, and ruinous inflation?

Viva the Revolution! The real one, that is. 

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.