Friday Open Thread — Why America ?

In a comment to tarran’s post about the morality of armed rebellion, co-contributor Stephen Littau makes this point:

I would caution anyone who would want to begin or support an armed revolution against the government to study the French Revolution. There is always a chance that such actions can make matters worse, even if the revolution is successful. The French Revolution did not have the same success as the American Revolution. I would say that the outcome of the American Revolution is the exception, not the rule.

Which leads to the question — why is the American Revolution the historical exception rather than the rule ? Why didn’t we devolve into tyranny the way France did, or Russia, or most of the third-world, or, for that matter, post-Communist Russia ? Why didn’t France and Russia become like us ?

In response to Stephen’s comment, I said the following:

I’ve often wondered what it was that made the American Revolution different from the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution, or any of the countless number of third-world revolts against colonialism after World War II.

It’s more, I think than just the fact that the American Colonies in the 18th Century were blessed with some incredibly wise men, though they clearly were. I think it comes down to the philosophical basis that they were working from.

The American revolutionaries had Smith and Locke and the writers that followed them. The French had who ? Voltaire ? In 1848 it was Marx. In Russia it was Marx and Lenin. And, in the third-world it was Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh.

When you build your revolution on a foundation of sand, it’s bound to fail in the end.

But that just leads to the question of why the ideas of the American Revolution stopped at the Atlantic. After all, the French Revolution occurred only 13 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the same year that George Washington took office as President of the United States under a new Constitution. There were some founders, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who thought that the French Revolution was the beginning of the flowering of liberty on the European Continent. It wasn’t until the Reign of Terror and then the reign of Napoleon that they came to realize that their hopes had been dashed.

After that came the Revolutions of 1848, inspired mostly by various forms of socialism and ending in little more than yet another cycle of European wars. The Russian Revolution, inspired by Marx and lead by Lenin, was never a prospect for true freedom and that was confirmed by the terror of Josef Stalin. And, finally, the colonial revolutions that followed World War II were perhaps doomed to fail when they turned for inspiration to the same ideas that had led to the Gulag Archipeligo.

So, was the American Revolution just an historical accident ? Just plain dumb luck ? And, if it was, what does that mean for the future of any fight against statism ?

  • Lost_In_Translation

    The problem is that the United States was so very unique a revolution. A transplanted european (mostly Anglo-Saxen) society decided to form its own government without overthrowing an existing government (after all, the British parliment and royalty continued to exist afterwards). That no former leaders were directly harmed by the revolution probably had something to do with the relative unity of the population afterwards. In addition, the participants came from a strain of people inclined towards risk and pragmatism (as immigrants usually are). Finally, established norms of property rights and rule of law pre-existed the break up, which we now understand is a fairly vital component of modern civilization. Those without understanding of those principles must heavily utilize force to maintain order (see China, USSR). I don’t think its a mystery why the USA had a much shorter course to stability and prosperity than France and the USSR (which could be said to be reverting to the equivalent of imperial Prussia), its just a matter of understanding where we were in relation to other nations at the time we seperated ourselves from our former governing authority.

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  • tarran

    I think it had much to do with the failure of feudalism to take hold in the U.S.

    The American Revolution was not one class rebelling against another, but rather a conflict between two factions that drew their membership across the whole social spectrum.

    Nor was it peaceable, which is why many of my ancestors in the American colonies ended up as refugees in Canada (they were tories who had to flee for their lives).

  • Ben

    America at the time also had a continent to explore and conquer. I think that Manifest Destiny and ideas like that lent an optimism and belief that everyone could get ahead. The other revolutions did not have that.

    Also Doug, you briefly give credit to the wise men that America had. I honestly don’t believe this can be overstated. George Washington twice gave up god-like power for the betterment of the country (and because he knew it would immortalize him in history). How often has that happened in the history of the world?

    Maybe its just admiration for the Founders talking, but I believe they are the primary reason for the Revolution’s success.

  • Doug Mataconis


    I agree that the Founders were unique. We were also lucky more than once.

    For example, switch of one vote in the House in 1800 could have put Aaron Burr in the White House which would have been a disaster.

  • Stephen Littau

    Tarran, Ben, and Doug have all made great points worth considering. I know that some would say America’s successful revolution was ‘divine providence,’ a term several of the founders themselves used.

    Being an atheist, I obviously cannot buy into the divine providence explanation. But assuming for a moment that a divine presence existed, why would god smile on a revolution which would lead to a government with a secular constitution (first government without any references to a god in its governing charter) but not intervene in France and elsewhere?

    The thing that separates the American Revolution from other revolutions was the strength of the ideas of the founders. The founders had bitter disputes on how the new country should govern but most of them were willing to debate their differences rather than resort to violence. They also, for the most part, respected the concept of individual rights and the rule of law.

  • Brad Warbiany

    Could it be a lot simpler?

    America was settled by the sort of people who were willing to get on a boat, leave their home, their family, their friends, and go to a place that was the “new world”. These were the sort of people who didn’t need government. They didn’t need that false security. When they finally tossed off the Crown, then, why would they replace it with new chains?

    France was different. France was a very established culture that had a history of subservience to the monarchy. When the monarchy became oppressive, they overthrew it, but they expected someone to take its place. They replaced rule by one with rule by all, but it ended up being no less oppressive.

  • Benjamin Kuipers

    The American war for independence was unique from all the ones you mention because of the distinctly conservative nature of the revolt. It was a war for restoration, restoration of the principles of free English government as they existed under the Bill of Right from 1689. However shrouded you may perceive the Declaration of Independence’s opening lines to be with Rousseauian “reason,” but make no mistake, the violations listed are violations of the Bill of Right and the Magna Carta, the ancient liberties of free Englishmen. The colonials fought to preserve their systems of government, not to overthrow them.