Tuesday, March 8, 2011

American Founding (9): Revolutionary or Reactionary?

Interpreting America's beginnings: revolutionary or reactionary?

Around the world during the 19th century, American revolutionaries vied with French revolutionaries for the minds of utopians and the hearts of the oppressed. In Latin America and elsewhere, the generation of 1776 was regarded as a liberating force for human betterment. The American experience taught colonial peoples how to break away from a mother country that had become a tyrant. Women looked to the Declaration of Independence as they did to Mary Wollstonecraft for a manifesto of empowerment. Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Washington, Sam Adams -- these were heroes around the world, freedom fighters who championed human dignity and rights. In a similar way, the French Revolution encouraged Third Estates everywhere to reject an absurdly privileged monarchy, aristocracy, and church. The spirit of 1789 filled men and women with the desire for a new social order.

Where you stand depends on where you sit. Following the First World War and the unfortunate settlement at Versailles, the U.S. became increasingly associated with reaction. After 1919 it was Bolsheviks and Trotskyists who began appealing to revolutionaries throughout the West and developing world. About the same time, Charles Beard and a generation of progressive historians reevaluated the American founding. They argued that the framers had acted primarily out of self- and class-interest when forming the new government. Thus the U.S. was not really an asylum for those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. Rather it was seen as a safe house for capitalists and imperialists preoccupied with filthy lucre. A half-century later, when the U.S. was withdrawing from Southeast Asia, scorn for the U.S. reached an all-time high. For many, it was guilt by association: Our nation's founders carried the stink that attached to Cold War operatives.

The zigs and zags of history have a way of confounding even the smartest people. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, much of the world once again turned bullish on the American founding -- but not necessarily the Thomas Paine and Sam Adams rendition of it. For the American founding did not involve the utter destruction that characterized other modern revolutions. The French, Russians, and Chinese all experienced violent social upheaval that accompanied the political tumult -- resulting in mass carnage. The Americans did not. Our founding was more about political change than social transformation. By the early 1990s, the American "model" of revolution was gaining renewed respect. For it had resulted in a nation that proved to be historically resilient and relevant to solving the most fundamental problems in the human condition. Outlasting the Soviet experiment, it presented itself as the world's strongest nation ever -- militarily, economically, politically, and philanthropically.

Quiz: Is America a revolutionary nation or a reactionary one?

Answer: Yes!

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