You Say you Want a Revolution

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

                                                — The Beatles, “Revolution” (1968)

In 44 B.C., a cabal of Roman citizens sought to overthrow the perceived tyranny of Julius Caesar by assassinating him. Rather than restoring the Roman Republic, which had lasted for four centuries, they ended up with a civil war and, ultimately, the rule and military dictatorship of Augustus and his successors that lasted for the next five.

In 1649, the English Civil War culminated with the autocratic Charles I losing his head. But England traded its king for the harsher dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

In 1789, the French Revolution overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, murdered the king, created a reign of terror, and ended up with Napoleon, another dictator, who styled himself emperor. A reprise in 1848, though less violent, installed Napoleon III, a leader of similar vein.

The catastrophe of World War I destroyed four autocratic empires. Two, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, were dismembered. In Germany, the Kaiser was exiled; in Russia, the Tsar was murdered. But both nations soon fell into dictatorship. Germany got Hitler. Russia got Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, whose tyranny was overthrown in 1990. But now, Russia has Putin.

Similarly, the Chinese overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911, and after a period of roving gangs headed by warlords, got Chiang Kai-shek, and then Mao.

There are doubtless many other examples in history where revolutions overthrew oppressors, but traded them for equal, or worse tyrannies.

One, famously, did not. The American Revolution. But why?

In my view, several reasons.

One was that it was not really a revolution in the sense that its goal was the re-ordering of the political-social culture. The colonists sought to change their government, not their governance. Their goal was independence from Great Britain.

From the establishment of Jamestown to the French and Indian War a century and a half later, the British Colonies in North America were mostly left to themselves without interference from Britain. The reasons for this were the remoteness of the colonies from the mother country — a journey from Britain took six weeks to two months, and even longer in bad weather— and political. England under the Stuarts and early Hanoverians was preoccupied with internal strife, such as the civil war mentioned earlier, and European rivalries. During this time the colonies established their own legislatures and executives, and other rudimentary governing institutions. These colonial governments were basic, imposed few taxes, and generally left most individuals alone. They were adequate for a self-sufficient society of farmers, tradesmen and merchants. They had sufficient means handle the occasional skirmish with the Indians by themselves.

That changed with the French and Indian War, a theater of the European Seven Years War. This was a war for empire that Great Britain won. Wars cost money—a lot. Parliament believed that since the colonies benefitted from the British armed forces defeat of the French and their Indian allies, they should help defray the costs. Attempts to enforce the various revenue raising measures enacted were often heavy handed and intrusive to the autonomy that the colonists treasured. Consequently, they did not wish to overthrow an established means of governance. They just wanted to be left alone.

The second reason is that colonial America was by and large a classless society. There were certainly some who were a lot better off economically than other, but no legal aristocracy or rigid class system. No proletariat, or underclass, existed in the colonies. There was no cohesive aggrieved group significant enough for a potential emperor, duce, or führer to appeal to. No English Puritans, French sans-culottes, German workers, or Russian peasants. (Black slaves were an exception, but, being relatively few and isolated, they were not a part of the body politic.)

The third factor was, perhaps, the overarching one: George Washington. He was one of the most effective leaders in history. Washington led the Continental Army, ill-equipped and supplied, at first untrained, for six years of war against the most powerful army on earth at that time. And emerged victorious, at the head of a battle hardened army whose soldiers held him in exceptionally high regard. He could have made himself the absolute ruler of the colonies. There was talk of his becoming king of new nation. What did he do? He appeared before the Congress, resigned his commission, and went back to his home at Mount Vernon to resume farming. King George III, upon hearing of Washington’s resignation was reported to have said “If he does that, he is the greatest man in the world.”

There was more. Within a few years, Washington was called out of his retirement to chair the Constitutional Convention, and then was elected the first President of the United States. He could have easily been elected for a third term, but he again stepped down and retired to his home. The two-term precedent Washington set was so strongly ensconced that it was observed until Franklin Roosevelt’s disregard of it resulted in it becoming a permanent Constitutional provision.

The Declaration of Independence, approved 240 years ago today, set forth the reasons that impelled the colonists to the separation. It was the British government’s, symbolized by King George III, violation of the established rights of the colonials, not a desperate desire to turn over the existing governance. Those rights were summarized in the broad categories of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The colonials were not looking for a strong leader to lead them out of the wilderness, or to right wrongs, or bring about prosperity for all. Quite the contrary, they wanted to be left alone.

And, the only leader who could have become dictator in the wake of revolution said “count me out.”

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