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Americans and Revolutionaries

Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations

by David Brion Davis
Harvard University Press, 130 pp., $19.95

Revolutions is a very timely book, more timely surely than the author, David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale, could have realized when he presented it as the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in May 1989. Since that date revolutions have occurred with great rapidity in Eastern Europe, and their end may not be yet in sight. How will the United States respond to all these repudiations by Communist nations of their revolutionary past? What meaning does revolution today have for Americans whose country was itself born in revolution? And what is the relationship of equality to revolution and how do our ideas of equality change in response to foreign revolutions? Davis’s short book offers us some historical perspective for dealing with questions like these.

Revolutions is composed of three lectures or chapters entitled “The American Revolution and the Meaning of Equality,” “America, France, and the Anxieties of Influence,” and “The Struggle to Preserve a Revolutionary America.” The book is not history as such, certainly not any sort of narrative account that takes us from one point in the past to another. It is instead, as the subtitle makes clear, a set of personal reflections on the theme of equality and foreign revolutions in American history, concentrating on the era of the founding fathers and their “exuberance and disillusion over the French Revolution,” which Davis says became “the prototype or paradigm for international revolution” until at least 1917.

As a series of reflections or ruminations, the book necessarily wanders about, both in time and space, from 1789 to 1848 to 1989, from Haiti to Seneca Falls to Tiananmen Square. It is leisurely and erudite, in keeping with its original lecture format. And it is punctuated with informed references and quotations from everyone from V.S. Naipaul to Mikhail Gorbachev. The book is a fitting expression of the immense learning and imaginative insights of one of America’s most distinguished historians.

Although there have been several studies of America’s responses to foreign revolutions, including the late William Appleman Williams’s programmatic book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776–1976 (1976), Davis believes that none of them adequately conveys “the extraordinary complexity” of America’s reactions to revolutions elsewhere in the world. Because many “detailed investigations” are needed, he says, before we can reach a sound synthesis of the subject—“a synthesis grounded in the social history…that discovers long-term continuities, traditions, reenactments, and symbolic meanings”—his book can be “no more than a pilot study.”

Davis here is being much too humble. Asserting that his book is just an initial probe into a complicated subject is good rhetorical strategy for a historian who wants to roam freely over two centuries in less than a hundred pages; but it seems doubtful that a longer book based on more detailed studies would change Davis’s opinion on these matters very much. After almost a half century of pondering the problems of American history, Davis knows pretty much what he thinks about American attitudes toward equality and foreign revolutions; and what he thinks could scarcely get more nuanced or more complicated than it is in this short book.

Davis links equality with revolution on the assumption that all revolutions from the time of Aristotle and especially from the seventeenth-century English upheavals have been “closely associated with conflicting ideas of equality.” And America’s understandings of equality in turn “have both shaped and been shaped by perceptions of foreign revolutions.” This is about as explicit as Davis ever gets in explaining why he selected America’s ideas of equality and its responses to foreign revolutions as subjects to talk about.

It is hard not to believe that the link Davis makes between equality and foreign revolutions is somewhat forced and arbitrary. The subjects seem to have been chosen not because they are necessarily bound together, but rather because 1989, when the Massey lectures were presented, was the bicentennial of the French Revolution and a year of revolutions in its own right: what could be a better occasion than revolutions for discussing equality? Equality is a subject that has long interested Davis, who is one of the world’s leading experts on American conceptions of slavery and antislavery; and it is understandable that he should want to explore it in relation to American reactions to revolutions.

Describing Davis’s conception of this relationship, indeed, describing what his book is about, is not easy. Davis wanders about so habitually that it is difficult to know where he has been and where he is heading. Even paragraphs are not handled in any easy linear manner. He begins one paragraph on the American revolutionaries’ attitudes toward inequality, for example, with the story of Joseph from the Bible, jumps to a quotation from Lincoln, and ends with a couple of statements about our present views on the matter. Each sentence by itself is clear and comprehensible enough, but the sentences do not always connect readily with one another. Davis takes two steps forward and one backward and often several steps to either side as well. He rarely says anything directly or conclusively. Every generalization is qualified, refined, taken back, or circumscribed to the point where complexity is all and nothing simple is said.

Part of this complexity is certainly the consequence of Davis’s sinuous and subtle way of thinking, but part of it is also the result of Davis’s sensitivity to the present political world in which he is writing. Subjects like equality and revolution, even when discussed in reference to the distant past, can arouse political passions these days, and Davis knows this. Consequently, Davis very shrewdly (and Davis is nothing if not shrewd) has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid being ideologically pigeonholed. His liberal sympathies for equality and social justice are unmistakable, but he clearly does not want to be regarded as one of those politically correct “historians on the left” who use and consequently simplify and distort history to promote change in the present. At the same time, however, Davis equally does not want to be cast as a historian who merely celebrates the capitalism and imperialism of America’s past.

The result is that Davis goes out of his way to be complicated and contradictory. “Historians,” he says, “usually have portrayed the United States as a decidedly nonrevolutionary if not counterrevolutionary society.” Perhaps there is some truth in that, but not too much: “We must at least,” he writes, “take account of [the Americans’] remarkable receptivity to the idea of revolution, which has risen and fallen with the regularity and persistence of religious revivals.” Then again Davis admits that the United States became “in time the world’s leading adversary of popular revolutions, the neo-Metternichian supporter” of every twentieth-century right-wing dictator from Batista to Duvalier.

Yet at the same time this straightforward view does not do justice to the intricate and perplexing problems of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. “Still,” he says, “there is abundant evidence that the ’cause’ of the American Revolution, as Paine put it in Common Sense, ceased long ago to be ‘the cause of all mankind.’ ” Unless, of course, we regard “the continuing desire of millions of people to immigrate to the United States from all quarters of the world” as evidence that the “cause” is still alive. Yet then again “nothing could be more fatuous than to interpret” the erection of a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square and recent developments in Eastern Europe “as the prelude to the Americanization of the world.” Still, fatuous or not, there is no doubt that these developments revealed “a deep-seated popular longing for political and legal rights we have long defended as a legacy of the American Revolution.” So in the end we have to “see the absurdity of the recently fashionable view that for two centuries the United States has been struggling to preserve a sclerotic Present and fight off the Future, as represented by a regenerative, revolutionary world.”

While Davis backs and fills, he moves deftly between the critical and the celebratory views of the United States and its attitudes toward revolutions. He is a master of ideological dexterity. Just when we think we have him cornered on the right or the left, he slides away and says something erudite and complicated.

It is not surprising therefore that the argument of the book is hard to follow and even harder to describe. He spends a good deal of time in the first chapter analyzing the various meanings Americans of the revolutionary era and the early nineteenth century gave to equality. Davis has no doubt of the importance of equality for Americans; it is for him, as it was for Tocqueville, “the fundamental theme and characteristic of American civilization.” The revolutionaries, writes Davis, meant by equality, freedom, and independence not being subjected to the will of another. It was personal and psychological equality—relations between people—that they were after and not a redress of the disparities in income, wealth, housing, and other material benefits that we usually refer to today in discussing equality.

The opposite of such a conception of equality was slavery, which had a day-to-day reality for many early Americans that it did not have for Europeans. Davis notes but does not explain the extraordinary manner in which revolutionary Americans collapsed all the intricate calibrations and delicate distinctions of a traditional society into the stark dichotomy of freemen and slaves: a person, Americans said, had to be one or the other. Hence Americans developed an acute sensitivity to all threats to their liberty, to all limitations on their finely honed sense of equality. They were always ready, said Edmund Burke, to “snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

The Americans’ conception of equality, says Davis, became a crucially important standard for their interpreting other revolutions. Precisely because Americans themselves were born in a revolution that was dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal, they became especially sensitive to the way other revolutions confirmed or challenged the ideological balance they were trying to maintain between an existing social order and their dreams of a better world.

The Americans’ devotion to equality, says Davis, thus complicated their response to the French Revolution, creating both their initial enthusiasm and their later fears. Davis is surprised that Americans were as ecstatic and excited by the Revolution as they were and expressed so little alarm over it until its most radical phase was passed. Here Davis may have allowed his fondness for ambiguity and contradiction to get out of hand and create for him more complexity than is necessary. It is perfectly understandable why initially most Americans, Federalists as well as Republicans, should have been enthusiastic about the French Revolution. The French after all seemed only to be following what the Americans had begun in throwing off the shackles of monarchy and in becoming republicans. Only after the horrors of the Terror became apparent, and even then not until the excesses of the Revolution seemed to be showing up in American society itself—in the breakdown of family and social hierarchies, the growth of irreligion and deism, and the spread of popular politics—did many Americans, principally Federalists, react strongly against the French Revolution. The French Revolution in fact became a scapegoat for indigenous American social developments set in motion by America’s own revolution two decades earlier.

But as long as the French Revolution remained true to republican values Americans of all persuasions necessarily remained committed to it. Jefferson found it especially difficult to abandon his faith in the Revolution. True, he said in 1793, rivers of blood were flowing and lots of innocent people were dying; but

the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest…. Rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated; were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now.

This is the kind of extremist revolutionary thinking that appalls Davis, but at the same time, he says, this kind of messianic and perfectionist thinking is needed to counteract complacency and satisfaction with an unjust status quo.

Even Jefferson like most other Americans eventually turned against the French Revolution—not, however, because he and others, as Davis implies, had ambiguous and complicated views of revolutions, but because they thought the French Revolution had failed. It was simply an aborted attempt by the poor French to emulate the successful revolution of the Americans. No American could deny that a revolution against monarchy on behalf of liberty was a good thing. As Davis himself points out, Americans even greeted the revolution of the slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue with enthusiasm. President Adams’s administration praised the black leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, signed a tripartite treaty with him and the British, and provided his army with arms and provisions that helped him win independence from France. To be sure, the later slaughter of white slaveholders by the rebellious blacks, followed by the emigration of thousands of frightened French planters to the United States, terrified the American South and prevented successive administrations from recognizing the new Haitian Republic until the Civil War. Explaining American behavior in this case, however, does not seem to require believing that Americans had many confused doubts and anxieties about revolutions in general.

Davis, in other words, seems at times needlessly to complicate his account of the Americans’ response to foreign revolutions. He opens his third chapter, for example, with two examples that he believes “suggest the depth and persistence of the counterrevolutionary phobia that nineteenth-century reformers were forced to overcome.” But if such a “counterrevolutionary phobia” ever existed, it scarcely seems to have been deep and persistent. No doubt many Southern slaveholders and wealthy northeastern Whigs were suspicious of revolutions elsewhere, but few other Americans were—as long as those revolutions appeared to be antimonarchal and advancing American republican principles.

It is true that at times Davis recognizes “certain long-term patterns of continuity” in America’s responses to revolution, in particular “the continuing enthusiasm and hopeful expectations with which the press and general public have greeted news of foreign revolutions.” More often, however, he stresses the complexities, anxieties, and contradictions in the Americans’ responses to revolution, especially as they “confronted conceptions of equality and class oppression” that challenged the fundamental premises of their own presumably liberal and political revolution.

Consequently, Davis’s account seems skewed. By looking at the Americans’ responses to revolution through the complicated prism of equality, Davis has distorted the proportions of the story and placed an undue emphasis on the Americans’ ambiguity and scruples concerning revolutions. He tends to concentrate on the qualifications, hesitations, and exceptions at the expense of the essential core of the Americans’ reactions and to miss the full significance of their messianic aspirations to spread their republican revolution everywhere.

The doubts and anxieties most nineteenth-century Americans expressed were not over inequalities and class oppression in their own midst or over the idea of revolution itself but over the ability of peoples elsewhere successfully to emulate the American Revolution. American leaders like Jefferson and John Adams naturally welcomed the Latin American colonial rebellions against a corrupt Spanish empire in the early nineteenth century as inevitable copies of their own revolution, but they colored their enthusiasm with much skepticism. Did the South Americans have the social character and moral virtue essential for republican government? “I feared from the beginning,” wrote Jefferson in 1821, “that these people were not yet sufficiently enlightened for self-government; and that after wading through blood and slaughter, they would end in military tyrannies, more or less numerous. Yet as they wished to try the experiment [in republicanism], I wished them success in it.”

It is this sort of patronizing pessimism about other people’s capacity to copy them, and not a deep phobia about revolution itself, that seems to characterize nineteenth-century Americans’ views of revolution. Despite their doubts about other peoples, Americans never lost the sense that it was their own successful revolution, and not the aborted French Revolution, that was “the prototype or paradigm for international revolution.” Count Metternich, the great conservative minister of the Habsburg monarchy, certainly shared that sense. In response to the American proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, Metternich bitterly denounced the North American republicans.

In permitting themselves these unprovoked attacks…on the institutions of Europe most worthy of respect,…in fostering revolutions wherever they show themselves, in regretting those which have failed, in extending a helping hand to those which seem to prosper, they lend new strength to the apostles of sedition, and re-animate the courage of every conspirator.

In all the revolutions of the century—from the Latin American colonial rebellions, the Greek revolt of 1821, the French constitutional transformation of 1830, the general European insurrections of 1848, to the overthrow of the Second French Empire in 1870—the United States government was always sympathetic and nearly always eager to become the first state in the world to extend diplomatic recognition to the new revolutionary regimes. After all, in most Americans’ eyes, these European revolutions were simply efforts by oppressed peoples to become like them, all species of the same revolutionary genus Americanus. They never felt threatened by these revolutions; they welcomed them all and toasted the revolutionary patriots like the Hungarian Louis Kossuth who came to America.

Naturally this encouragement of revolution did not endear Americans to the European monarchies, but in their geographical separation they simply did not care. When the Habsburg monarchy protested American sympathy with the Hungarian revolution of 1848, Secretary of State Daniel Webster accepted nothing less than full responsibility for the upheavals, telling the world

that the prevalence on the other continent of sentiments favorable to republican liberty is the result of the reaction of America upon Europe; and the source and center of that reaction has doubtless been, and now is, in these United States.

Webster went on to add that in comparison with the United States the Austrian empire was “but a patch on the earth’s surface.”

Although nineteenth-century Americans frequently resorted to such spread-eagle bombast, they actually did very little to aid revolutions with money or material. Believing that peoples who were morally and socially fit for republicanism would sooner or later throw off monarchism just as they had, Americans felt little obligation to do more than act as sympathetic spectators of revolutionary efforts. But this did not make them counterrevolutionary. They had become convinced that they could best accomplish their mission of bringing free government to the rest of the world simply by existing as a free government. “We stand under a fearful responsibility to our Creator and our fellow citizens,” William Wirt of Virginia declared in a speech in 1830.

It has been his divine pleasure that we should be sent forth as the harbingers of free government on the earth, and in this attitude we are now before the world. The eyes of the world are upon us; and our example will probably be decisive of the cause of human liberty.

Such a position was scarcely isolationist. The Americans, not the French, were at the center of the world revolution. We even had the nerve to tell the French that. Despite America’s determination not to intervene in Europe’s affairs, President Grant declared on the occasion of the establishment of the Third French Republic in 1870, “We cannot be indifferent to the spread of American political ideas in a great and highly civilized country like France.” One wonders what the officials at the Quai d’Orsay thought of that statement.

Because of the slowness with which republicanism spread, however, nineteenth-century Americans increasingly came to conclude that they were the only successfully free and republican state in a corrupt world. Millions of other people in the world seemed to think so, too. The migration to the United States between 1820 and 1920 of over thirty-five million refugees from monarchies gave the Americans’ conception of themselves as a chosen people a less divine and more literal meaning and confirmed for them their preeminence as a revolutionary people.

It is only within this nineteenth-century setting, this revolutionary tradition of republicanism, this belief that Americans were in the vanguard of history leading the world towards liberty, that we can begin to comprehend the extraordinary American reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although Davis mentions the Russian Revolution more than once, he does not clearly distinguish the Americans’ reactions to it from their reactions to other, earlier revolutions. But their response was very different. Indeed, in the full sweep of American history up to that time, no foreign event had such a dramatic and searing effect on Americans as did the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917. After that momentous event Americans’ understanding of themselves and the world would never be the same.

At first, with the March 1917 overthrow of the tsar and the formation of the provisional government, Americans welcomed the Russian Revolution as they had welcomed earlier antimonarchal European revolutions. Seven days after the tsar abdicated, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the new Russian government, the first power in the world to do so. President Wilson now declared he had “a fit partner for a league of honor,” a league that Wilson clearly hoped would be a means for the worldwide extension of republicanism. In May 1917 the American ambassador in Moscow wrote that he expected Russia to come out of its ordeal “as a republic, and with a government…founded on correct principles,” that is, principles similar to those of the American republic.

Yet with the Bolshevik takeover of the revolution in the fall of 1917 all this initial American enthusiasm quickly disappeared. Instead of its firmest friend, the United States suddenly became the bitterest critic of the Russian Revolution. Instead of welcoming revolution, as American governments had traditionally done throughout the nineteenth century, four American presidents withheld diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union for sixteen years, making the United States not the first but the last major Western power to recognize the revolutionary regime.

In light of America’s earlier revolutionary tradition this was a remarkable turnabout—a turnabout, however, that is explicable only in view of that earlier tradition. What was now different, what caused this abrupt change of attitude, was the nature of the Bolshevik appeal, the new character of the Communist ideology. The Bolsheviks claimed not simply to be leading another antimonarchal revolution in emulation of the American or French models of the late eighteenth century. The Russian Revolution was not another species of the revolutionary genus Americanus; it was a new revolutionary genus altogether. The Bolsheviks said that their Communist revolution represented a totally new departure in world history.

The great antagonism that immediately sprang up between the United States and the Soviet Union rested not simply on the exigencies of power politics or the circumstances of contrasting market systems, but, more important, on the competitiveness of two very different revolutionary traditions. The Soviet Union threatened nothing less than the displacement of the United States from the vanguard of history. The Russians, not the Americans, now claimed to be pointing the way toward the future (and more alarming still, there were some Americans in the 1920s and 1930s who agreed with that claim). For the first time since 1776 Americans were faced with an alternative revolutionary ideology with universalist aspirations equal to their own. This ideological threat was far more serious to Americans than anything the Russians did technologically, either in developing the H-bomb or in launching Sputnik. For it seemed to make all of America’s heritage irrelevant: if Americans were not leading the world toward liberty and free government, what was American history all about?

With this dramatic emergence of a rival revolutionary ideology Americans in the twentieth century grew more and more confused about themselves and their place in history. They could not very well stand against the idea of revolution but at the same time they could no longer be very enthusiastic about revolution. With the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 the United States for the first time in its history committed itself to supporting established governments of “free peoples” against the threat of subversion from “armed minorities”—presumably Communist—within the state. This radical departure from historic American attitudes eventually culminated in our disastrous intervention in Vietnam. This fundamental threat to the meaning of American history posed by a rival revolutionary ideology blinded us to the nationalistic and ethnocultural forces at work in the world. In such an atmosphere it became difficult for Americans not to believe that every revolution was in some way communist, and consequently our definition of “free” governments was stretched to extraordinary lengths to cover eventually any government that was non-Communist.

It would be a mistake, however, to see America’s support of corrupt or reactionary regimes as the direct response of American capitalism or as the result of some deep-rooted abhorrence of revolution. Many of America’s cold war actions, clumsy and misguided as they often may have been, represented our confused and sometimes desperate efforts to maintain our universalist revolutionary aspirations in the world. Our Point Four Program accompanied the Truman Doctrine; the Peace Corps coincided with our involvement in Vietnam. All were linked; all were cut from the same ideological cloth; all were expressions of what was becoming more and more a dimly perceived sense of America’s revolutionary mission in the world.

Our experience in Viet Nam no doubt tempered our desire to make the world over. Although President Reagan tried to restore, at least rhetorically, some of America’s revolutionary tradition, it clearly seems to be petering out, or to be swallowed up by a larger worldwide concern for human rights. We may be witnessing the emergence of a new maturity in American foreign policy, a lessening of our excessive moralism and the beginnings of a more realistic appraisal of the possibilities and limitations of American power. Even the surprisingly muted and restrained reaction of the Bush administration to the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of its revolutionary aspirations to make the world over as communist may suggest a new maturity in America’s outlook and perhaps as well a further weakening if not the virtual disappearance of our own revolutionary aspirations.

What all this bodes for the future no one can say. As Davis puts it, “Few of us today can share Marx’s confidence that we know where history is headed.” His little book, however, tells us a great deal where that history is coming from.