History: American Revolution, radical or conservative?
GJ History Columnist
Columnist’s note: This month I’m departing from the usual historical stories and instead sharing with you excerpts from a speech given by Joseph W. Dooley, President General of the National Society of the Sons of American Revolution at an annual Colorado State Sons of American Revolution meeting in Denver on February 8, 2014. President Dooley speaks of the debate among historians as to whether our revolution was radical or conservative. With July 4 just a week away, I feel this is an appropriate offering for this month’s article.
To explore the question of “radical” or “conservative” President Joseph Dooley states “A ‘radical revolution’ might be said to be a revolution that seeks to bring about an extreme change to the existing government. Likewise, a ‘conservative revolution’ might be said to be a revolution that seeks to preserve the status quo, or at least some aspect of the status quo.”
Considering other revolutions in western history, Dooley began with the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.
Explaining that King Charles I was perceived to be abusive of the citizens rights, military leader Oliver Cromwell led the army and defeated the King who subsequently lost his head. Cromwell, in the name of the people, becomes the Lord Protector, the absolute ruler, and a military dictator.
President Dooley continued with the French Revolution in the late 18th century and explained while under Louis XVI the French aristocracy was decadent, and abusive of the rights and needs of the citizens. Louis was removed from the throne and beheaded. A civil war ensued and a popular military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, arose who claimed to act in the name of the people. Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, but was actually a dictator.
President Dooley pointed out the revolution in Russia was similar to England and France and stated “Czar Nicholas II was not a bad man, but he was an awful ruler.” The government was corrupt, oppressive and the citizens’ needs were not met. The Czar was removed, killed, and a civil war followed. This “yielded a totalitarian state, which claimed to act in the name of the people for more than 70 years.”
He said “The American Revolution is like the others in that the rebelling faction sought to remove a government that was abusive of the rights of the people.” We were successful and we were not followed by a civil war or the rise of a dictator. “Few Americans realize how close we came to both civil war and a dictator. How we avoided this illustrates one of the differences between our revolution and most others.
“In 1783, long after Yorktown, Continental Army officers plotted to march on Congress and seize control of the government. This plot was devised without General Washington’s knowledge, and when the general learned of it, he pleaded with the officers not to do this, that marching on Congress was contrary to the ideals for which we had fought.
“It would have been so easy for Washington to have made himself king, emperor or lord protector.
“The character of George Washington contributes largely to making our revolution different from other revolutions.”
President Dooley stated some feel “the American Revolution was fought by rich, white men who sought nothing more than to preserve the privileges associated with being rich, white and male,” which he rejects.
“Any casual study of the American Revolution reveals how broadly the revolution was embraced by all strata of American society.”
He points out at least 10 percent of the Continental Army and various militias were black; women supported the revolution across the board; the revolution was supported by Protestants, Catholics and Jews (poor as well as rich); farmers, merchants, preachers, lawyers and doctors – all rallied behind the American Revolution.
“The broad base of support for our revolution makes it different from other revolutions.”
He believes “the most important aspect of the American Revolution that distinguishes it from other revolutions is that it was successful.” The other revolutions “sought to remove a king and replace him with a republic, and yet both England and France would re-embrace monarchy. Granted, England’s progress toward constitutional monarchy would continue, and France would eventually shelve monarchy all together, but the English Civil War and the French Revolution were only steps toward these changes. Our revolution permanently removed a repressive, non-representative government, and replaced it with one that was representative and which secured those liberties the pursuit for which had animated the revolution itself.”
RADICAL OR CONSERVATIVE?
He said in the mid-1770s, radicals Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, and George Mason were wanting radical change and to remove utterly anything reminding them of English rule and English tradition in America.
“But most other American ‘revolutionaries,’ such as Washington, John Adams and Patrick Henry, were conservative – they were simply asserting their rights that had been guaranteed to them under the English constitution, which had evolved over the course of centuries. These and most Americans thought it was King George who sought radical change by imposing his will, and by suppressing the rights and liberty of his subjects contrary to law and tradition. Most Americans did not want to change their government” but “to prevent the King from encroaching on their traditions, their principles, and their rights. In this regard, the American Revolution might be said to be a conservative revolution.
“And yet, in 1818 John Adams would write: ‘The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.’
“There’s a story of an Englishman who was visiting America in the early days of the revolution. He stopped an American on the street and asked for directions to Lord So-and-so’s house. Without pause, the American replied, “I know of no lord but the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He shared this “to illustrate how Americans had already developed a deep-seated sense of equality among all people, and an utter rejection of the idea that some people are born ‘noble.’ In the 18th century, this was radical.
“Think about the assertion in our Declaration of Independence that ‘All men are created equal.’ Note that our Constitution expressly states that ‘No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.’ We do not have lords and ladies in America. This is not an accident. And it is radical.
“The idea that all men are created equal is deeply embedded in our national character.
“The circumstances into which a person is born in America do not limit his opportunity, nor do they ensure his success. Any individual is free to succeed or to fail.
“American ideas of equality speak to an inherent understanding, an American understanding, that social class – to the extent that such a thing exists in the United States — does not define the man.
“Our revolution was successful in securing the liberties its leaders sought.”
We have free speech and freedom of religion, can vote to elect our representatives in government, and citizens from all levels participate in the running of government.
“Was our revolution radical or conservative?
“I’d say both.
“It was conservative in that it sought to secure the liberties and representative government that Americans believed they already enjoyed and to which Americans believed they had a God-given right.
“It was radical in that it broadened the base of those who could enjoy these civil liberties, and ultimately led to the development of a free and open society where everyone — regardless of race, gender, religion or ‘social class’ — may enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thank you to Joseph W. Dooley for these insightful words.
Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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