Tuesday, March 8, 2011

American Founding (5): Revolutions of Recovery vs Innovation

Revolutions of recovery vs. revolutions of innovation

Another ideological battleground surrounds the idea of "revolution." There are two kinds of revolutions -- revolutions of recovery and revolutions of innovation -- and the American Revolution was a brew of both. Our founding combined the attempt to recover and the necessity to innovate. Recover what? The ancient rights of Englishmen. Innovate how? Safeguarding sovereign free citizens from arbitrary power, the founders established the world's largest federated republic with an exquisite separation of powers unburdened by monarchy, aristocracy, and an established church. Seen this way, the American Revolution is the child of recovery and innovation, memory and desire.

Most of my students have heard only one side of the story. Focusing on Boston's mobs -- or on the experience of women, indentured servants, slaves, and aboriginal Americans -- they have been taught that 1776 was a revolution of innovation in which greater numbers of human beings could live in freedom and equality. By this account, the American Revolution spearheaded a social transformation of world-historical significance. There is undeniable truth in this interpretation, especially when the long view is taken.

But it is not the whole story. Revolutions also can arise from the need to recover a past order. What might be called the Burkean view of the American founding -- based on the Anglo-Irishman's view of events in his country in 1688-'89 -- is that it was a revolution prevented not made. Again, John Willson has argued that the founders "were engaged in recovering as well as founding, of protecting liberty as much as inventing it." By this interpretation, King George III was destroying the best constitution then in existence and trying to make it something else, something destructive to liberty. So George III was the rebel innovator, much more so than George Washington, who resisted (in part) to preserve the ancient rights of Englishmen in British North America.

It is important to listen to the language people use. It matters whether the stress is on the "American founding" or the "American Revolution." The former puts the emphasis on memory and recovery; the latter, on desire and innovation.

Quiz: Was the American founding a revolution of innovation or a revolution of recovery?

Answer: Yes, absolutely!

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