By Myron Magnet
Why was the American Revolution, of all great revolutions, the only successful one, resulting in two centuries and more of unexampled freedom and prosperity? The French Revolution, by contrast, illuminated by America’s example and Enlightenment thought, began in blissful optimism but collapsed into a blood-soaked tyranny much worse than the monarchy it deposed. It spawned a military dictatorship that convulsed Europe and roiled half the globe for over a decade with wars of grandiose imperial aggression that slew at least 3 million. And the result of 25 years of turmoil? The Bourbon monarchy, minus the Enlightenment of its earlier incarnation, settled comfortably back down on its throne.
The Russian Revolution switched one despotism for another; and a century later, after the millions of deaths from its purges, slave camps, and intentionally inflicted famines, Russia remains a despotism, without rights or justice. We all get only one life: imagine someone born under the billowing flags of the new Soviet Union in 1917, who had to live that whole single life without the freedom so much as to speak the truth of the squalid, oppressive reality he saw in front of his own eyes. One single life—and what you can make of the one you have depends so much on what others have done to mold the time and place in which you live.
The Founders knew that truth so well that they announced their nationhood by significantly changing John Locke’s catalog of natural rights. The shift began in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, where George Mason emended Locke’s right to “Lives, Liberties and Estates” to “Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.” Two months later, Thomas Jefferson penned the final pithy formulation of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness! Who but the Americans made a revolution to vindicate the paramount right of each individual to try to make the most of his life by his own effort as he sees fit?
A key reason the revolution succeeded was its strictly limited scope. The Founders sought only liberty, not equality or fraternity. They aimed to make a political revolution, not a social or an economic one. Their Lockean social-contract political philosophy taught them that the preservation of individual liberty was the goal of politics. Its basis was the surrender of a portion of man’s original, natural freedom to a government that would protect the large remainder of it better than any individual could do on his own—the freedom to make your own fate and think your own thoughts without fear of bodily harm, unjust imprisonment, or robbery. The Founders’ study of history taught them that the British constitution under which they had lived—“originally and essentially free,” as Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew described it—was the ideal embodiment of such a contract. It was “the most perfect combination of human powers in society,” John Adams wrote in 1766, “for the preservation of liberty and the production of happiness”—until George III began to violate it. So Americans didn’t take up arms to create a new world order according to some abstract theory. They sought only to restore the political liberty they had actually experienced for 150 years, and they constructed their new government to preserve it.
The Protestantism of the Founding Fathers also helped the Revolution succeed. Their Protestant worldview placed an intense value on the individual—his conscience, the state of his soul, his understanding of Scripture, his personal relation to God, his salvation. It was an easy step for them to assume that, as each man was endowed by his Creator with an immortal soul immediately related to God, so he was similarly endowed with rights that are “not the Donation of Law,” as Constitution signer William Livingston put it, but “prior to all political Institution” and “resulting from the Nature of Man.” It was easy for them to assume, therefore, that the individual, not the state, took center stage in the human drama. They saw the state as merely instrumental to the fate of the individual.
But their Protestantism also gave them a history that helps explain why the colonists didn’t need or want a social revolution. The many non-Anglican dissenters among them had already had such a revolution: they had been forced to uproot themselves from their relatives and friends, from “the fair cities, villages, and delightful fields of Britain,” fleeing religious persecution into “the arms of savages and barbarians” in pursuit of liberty of conscience, as Mayhew put it in 1763. The Plymouth Pilgrims, who wrote a literal social compact in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, were only the first wave of a tide of such immigrants fleeing persecution: English and Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers; German pietists; French Huguenots; and others followed. In the eighteenth century, their offspring—John Jay, for example, who descended from New York’s huge contingent of Huguenot refugees from Catholic oppression, and Livingston, whose Presbyterian great-grandfather had fled Scotland for Holland after the Stuart restoration—had as lively a sense of lucky escape from the Old Country’s murderous religious tyranny as American Jews whose forebears had escaped Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust had in the twentieth century. They had as acute a sense of having had to start their lives over again in a land that afforded them almost providential religious and political freedom, safety, and opportunity.
It was that historical understanding that made Founders like Livingston and James Madison begin their journey to revolution with an assertion of freedom of conscience, which led to freedom to examine and judge for yourself, to think your own thoughts and speak and write them—and all the rest, since liberty is seamless. An “equal TOLERATION of Conscience,” Livingston wrote, “is justly deem’d the Basis of public Liberty in this Country.” To Madison, for whom America “offer[ed] an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion,” an established, official, obligatory religion, with dogmas you must profess, though it is seemingly “distant from the Inquisition, . . . differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance.” Even George Washington, who never knew that his great-great-grandfather, an Anglican cleric, suffered religious persecution at the hands of Cromwell’s Puritans, often liked to speak of America, with an endearing mix of Old and New Testament echoes, as “a Land of promise, with milk & honey,” which offered a refuge to “the poor, the needy & the oppressed of the Earth; and anyone therefore who is heavy laden.” He wasn’t alone among the colonists in thinking of the settlement of America in terms of the Israelites’ providential deliverance from Egyptian tyranny to the Promised Land.
Others had made their own personal social and economic revolutions by uprooting themselves from home and coming to America for economic opportunity. From laborers signing on as indentured servants, up to younger sons of gentlefolk with no inheritance in prospect, immigrants came to make their own fortunes as best they could. If they believed that their rights came from nature, not from government, they believed the same thing of their property, as people had believed from biblical and classical times and as Locke had reemphasized in the modern era. In explaining the origin of property rights, Locke had remarked of the State of Nature that “in the beginning all the World was America,” where people create property by working “the wild Common of Nature.” Their labor made the land and its produce their own, since “labour makes the far greatest part of the value of things, we enjoy in this World”—in fact, he calculated, “of the Products of the Earth, useful to the Life of Man 9/10 are the effects of labour.”
The colonists, because they and their ancestors had created wealth out of a wilderness, took for granted, with Locke, their right to their own property. And though they believed in the inborn equality of natural rights, they assumed, with Madison, that in a society where every man has the right to pursue his happiness and forge his fate, the unequal distribution of talents will naturally and unobjectionably produce inequality of wealth. So economic equality was no part of their revolutionary goal. Quite the reverse: “an equal division of property,” Madison pronounced in Federalist 10, would be an “improper” and “wicked project.”
Colonists without personal experience of Old World oppression, or oft-heard family memories of it, knew from history and Scripture—from tales of Pharaoh and Herod, of Caesar, Nero, and Caligula, of Bloody Mary and the Stuarts—that even though government exists to preserve liberty, it too often has been freedom’s destroyer. They knew from Magna Carta and from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that Englishmen had had to resist such tyranny at swordpoint and to reassert their own rights as well as the strict limits that the original social contract had placed on royal power. They knew what it had cost to assure, as Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder put it, that “[t]he poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.” Or as the Jacobean chief justice Sir Edward Coke, whose Institutes of the Laws of England every colonial lawyer had read, phrased it more succinctly 150 years earlier: “A man’s house is his castle.”
So when, after 150 years of letting Americans run their own affairs, the British government began to meddle malignly with their liberty once 22-year-old George III became king in 1760, following the death of his grandfather, George II, the colonists unsurprisingly responded to the interference with outrage. After decreeing new colonial customs duties and stricter enforcement in 1764, London imposed its first direct levy on the colonies in 1765 in the Stamp Act, taxing every colonial newspaper, journal, legal document, almanac, playing card, and other paper product, in flagrant contravention of the “standing Maxim of English Liberty,” as Livingston had quoted it more than a decade earlier, “ ‘that no Man shall be taxed, but with his own Consent.’ ” As Washington wrote to a friend, “I think the Parliament of Great Britain hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into your’s, for money.” Property doesn’t belong to the government, and the social contract gives government no right to tell you what to do with your own.
The American Revolution, then, was doubly limited in its aims: limited to making only a political change without altering social or economic arrangements, and determined to set strict limits to its new government, fearful that any governmental power beyond the barest minimum necessary to protect liberty too easily could become a threat to liberty itself. So apprehensive were the Founders on this score that the governmental structure they erected after the Declaration of Independence proved too weak to perform its essential function of protecting their lives, liberties, and properties adequately, prolonging the Revolutionary War and increasing the hardships of the men who fought it. With great misgivings, the Founders had to create a new constitution to give government the necessary powers, but their most urgent concern was to make those powers limited and enumerated, hedged around with every check and balance they could think of to prevent tyrannical abuse.
With similar prudence and modesty, when they wrote the new constitution, the Founders nursed no grandiose illusions that they were going to change human nature by altering the structure of government. Except for Thomas Jefferson, they didn’t believe in human perfectibility, as did some of the French philosophes whose worldview Jefferson had absorbed in his years in Paris as well as from his voluminous reading. The Founders certainly didn’t aspire to create something like the New Soviet Man. They had a very clear-eyed assessment of human nature. After all, their social-contract theory rested on a psychology that acknowledged what Patrick Henry called, conventionally enough, “the depravity of human nature,” with its lusts, aggression, and greed no less inborn than its rights. They tried to create a republic that would flourish with human nature as it is, with all its cross-grained passions and interests. They never forgot, as Alexander Hamilton cautioned, “that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”
Still, they weren’t cynics. Despite human nature’s failings, they believed men capable of virtue, as history, literature, observation, and introspection taught them. Not all men, and not all the time; but if “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” Madison observed in Federalist 55, only “the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring each other.” The question that vexed many throughout the Founding pertained to what conditions virtue needed to thrive. What kind of culture and education would nourish it? Could it survive in a large republic? Would commerce and investment stifle it, especially since they breed luxury, which “the Voice of History” teaches, wrote Livingston, is “a Kind of political Cancer, which corrodes and demolishes the best regulated Constitution”? Just look at “Rome; e’er-while the Nurse of Heroes, and the Terror of the World; but now the obscene Haunt of sequestered Bigots, and effeminate Slaves,” he wrote in 1753. For the next three decades, Americans worried that liberty couldn’t survive a culture of riches, with its “musicians, pimps, panders, and catamites,” as one signer of the Declaration of Independence fretted. In such a money-corrupted culture, some Founders worried, legislators and offices would be for sale.
The best answer to that fear was the example of the Founders themselves—men of luminous public spirit, who had no hesitation in “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” in the Declaration of Independence. And that is the last, and largest, reason that the American Revolution succeeded, where others failed. Its leaders were men of extraordinary character, merit, intelligence, wisdom, and, in the case of Washington, the Founding’s presiding genius, of heroic private virtue, too. They had the unshakable courage to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to assure the Revolution’s success. Already social leaders, professional successes, or both, they had no psychological need to exalt themselves, and certainly not by abasing or terrorizing others, as such revolutionary psychopaths as Robespierre or Lenin did. They never dreamed of placing themselves above the laws that they had made as the people’s representatives, and they wholeheartedly agreed with Madison that if the “spirit that nourishes freedom” should “ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.” And when they had played their parts and done their duty, they were content—indeed, eager—to go home.
That so many great men came together at that time and place to do such great deeds is one of history’s most thought-provoking miracles.
Myron Magnet, City Journal’s editor-at-large and its editor from 1994 through 2006, is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. His new book, The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735–1817, will appear next fall.