Consensus and Continuity, 1776-1787

Consensus and Continuity, 1776-1787

Consensus and Continuity, 1776-1787

Consensus and Continuity, 1776-1787

Excerpt

American historical scholarship has not always avoided a parochial point of view. The isolationism long since abandoned by students of our diplomatic history remains in areas where it is equally inappropriate. This has been eminently true of otherwise excellent discussions of the American Revolution. Where such leaders of the Revolution as John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Wilson were keenly aware of its precedents and of the relation of our governmental experience to that of other nations, the historians who have written about that great age have rarely followed their example to the extent of comparing it with other revolutions, ancient and modern.

When such comparisons are made, the Revolution, its course of political events, and above all its constitutional results, appear so exceptional as to approach the unique. It proceeded with a rare economy of violence. Reprisals between civilian patriot and loyalist there were, but they were mild when compared with those of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or the Spanish Civil War. Disputes, intrigues, factionalism, and recrimination among the leaders were not unknown. Yet by and large, the leaders of 1776 were also the leaders in 1787. None had gone to prison, or been hanged or beheaded for treason or alleged counter-revolutionary activity. The military chief became the first president of the Republic and retired at his own choice; the author of the Revolutionary Manifesto was its first Secretary of State; two of its chief agitators, though their glitter was somewhat dimmed, were still prominent political leaders in their respective states. Though it cannot be said that the American Revolution was conducted with absolute decorum, or that the losing side suffered no hardship, it can be said that it was conducted with moderation and a respect for lawful procedure not frequently encountered in the many revolutions about which we have authentic information.

Most of these revolutions exhibit a typical pattern or cycle. They begin with moderate aims pursued by moderate men; these are displaced by victory for the extremists; then terror and dictatorship; and, not infrequently, reaction and restoration of the old order. This was not the cycle of the American Revolution. By the time independence was agreed upon the men who led us into the Revolution had a fairly . . .

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