The Perils of a Revolutionary Culture

Somewhere along the line, we appear to have forgotten what the American Revolution was about — at least, this is the conclusion to draw from this nakedly seditious political spot out of Alabama.

If the Revolution was “about” taxes, it was so only secondarily. The founding generation revolted not to resolve policy differences with Westminster, but to replace an unelected government, imposed by force, with one representative of and accountable to the governed. The American colonists’ grievances with England grew solely out of the procedure used to enact British laws — not the substance of the laws themselves. Just so, the Declaration of Independence takes issue with British taxes only to the extent that King George made a habit of “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” As the rejection of the Articles of Confederation would prove, the first Americans were quite fine with the taxation as a concept — so long as that power remained as close to the people as possible.

In fact, the Founders nowhere purported to justify revolution as a means of resolving policy differences. Quite the opposite, the Constitution recites the traditional talismans of the dignity of the state by, among other things, utterly separating the civilian government from the military order, and retaining treason as a punishable offense, the only “common law” crime permitted in all of American law, thus making clear that a properly constituted and duly elected government is, and should be, unassailable, and protected from domestic enemies. Because they were building a civilization to last throughout the ages, the founding generation would’ve regarded the overthrow of a duly-elected government as a defeat, not as a vindication of some pre-existing principle. The American Revolution terminated the only wrong capable of justifying it: in the absence of an actual, existential threat to Democracy writ large, our history will not justify its repetition.

Why, then, do so many of us imagine it to be otherwise, and treat our revolutionary history as an excuse to threaten (or actually bring about) violence? Presumably, because the American Revolution isn’t the only internecine war in our history, and the theory that animated that other war, it turns out, does support revolution to resolve policy differences. Maybe it’s easy, for some, to conflate the two wars. But it shouldn’t be.

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3 comments

  1. OH SNAP!

    1. Also my god but that commercial is terribly acted. When I first heard of it I imagined the key line would be Bill Adama style — “I’m putting our fleet back together. I’m putting our family. Back. Together.” But no.

  2. I suspect a lot of this is simply about powerlessness. Especially during an economic crisis, our lives are greatly influenced by forces that are very difficult to understand and completely outside of our control. I guess some people try to compensate in these ways – by casting themselves as heroes in a drama where they “take arms” against the big evil government. It doesn’t accomplish anything, of course, but it allows you to feel like a protagonist instead of a victim.

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