[From the archives: first posted July 4, 2011]
Why do we call the upcoming U.S. holiday (holy day?) simply “the 4th of July”? Why don’t we call it “Revolution Day”?
Because God forbid we remember that it is supposed to be a revolution that we’re honoring. Okay, it was a certain kind of a revolution, one that favored the best interests of a certain group of people at the expense of others (one should always ask, cui bono…who benefits?). Still, it was a revolution of sorts, and a world-historical one at that.
What would happen if we really thought about revolution? It is probably too much to ask, to dangerous to consider. I get that, I suppose. I’m comfy…aren’t you?
But here is Tom Paine (from “The American Crisis“), with some updates underlined to ponder:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain [or America], with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us [and any other country it chooses] in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
Ponder that…. I know I got my comfiness pretty cheaply, if truth be told.
William Godwin, in hisEnquiry Concerning the Principles of Justice (1793), patiently and at length explains the dangers of government, whose power (as Lord Acton rightly noted) inevitably corrupts. And then Godwin asks what is to be hoped. He answers, speaking here of the juridical power of the state:
The reader has probably anticipated me in the ultimate conclusion, from these remarks. If juries might at length cease to decide and be contented to invite, if force might gradually be withdrawn and reason trusted alone, shall we not one day find that juries themselves and every other species of public institution, may be laid aside as unnecessary? Will not the reasonings of one wise man be as effectual as those of twelve? Will not the competence of one individual to instruct his neighbours be a matter of sufficient notoriety, without the formality of an election? Will there be many vices to correct and much obstinacy to conquer? This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, this famous line (with its subsequent, not-so-famous line attached):
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.
In other words, revolution can be good sh#t!
But Jefferson’s metaphor is apt: revolution is not mere destruction. It’s more like horticulture, gardening, growing beautiful & nourishing things. And sometimes in life, for the sake of something better, you’ve got to prune.
Our Founders pruned. But pruning is not a once-and-done deal. Not in gardening, not in political life.
In the lead-up to “Revolution Day,” why need read a little more of Jefferson’s letter to Smith:
I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: & very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: & what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent & persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.
TJ wasn’t always right, wasn’t always on the side of the angels, was he? Be he has a point here….
[2013 Update – Yesterday, the people of Egypt, via their military, threw off their democratically elected government. That government came about via revolutionary action that through off a dictator and military rule. Revolution is a messy business. I would not presume at this distance to know what is really going on in Egypt, but the papers today said that 30% of the populace back the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, 30% back the old guard, and 40% were tired of both of them. I don’t know why exactly, but that reminds me of our own political situation (simmering at a far cooler temperature, of course). My optimistic take-away from the events in Egypt is that the people, in general, do not like dictators or fascists of any stripe — not the fundamentalists, not the military, not any kind. They realized that just because you have an election it does not necessarily mean you have a democracy. A wise lesson learned.]