The social impact of revolution (1973) | ARCHIVES


Announcer: The American Enterprise Institute presents
the Distinguished Lecture Series on the Bicentennial of the United States. Our host for this thought-provoking
series is Vermont Royster. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the “Wall Street Journal,”
and Professor of Journalism and Public Affairs at the University of North Carolina. Vermont: I’m Vermont Royster, with another
in the American Enterprise Institute series of distinguished lectures on the American
Bicentennial. One of the nation’s leading scholars and educators have been invited by
the AEI to discuss their views on the American Bicentennial. This part of the Institute’s
continuing program for promoting public discussion on the major issues of our time. The AEI is
a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution located in Washington, DC. In this lecture, the AEI
speaker will be Dr. Robert Nisbet, Professor of History and sociology at the University
of Arizona in Tucson. The site of tonight’s lecture is Georgetown
University, located in historic Georgetown section of Washington, DC. Close by the picturesque
and polluted Potomac River. Georgetown dates back to the pre-revolutionary days, and its
first permanent building Old Stone House was completed in 1765. It is preserved today as
a National Historic Site. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was based on a design by George Washington
who helped turn Georgetown into a prosperous Port. Barges carried lumber and other goods
for over 200 miles inland into Georgetown. And from here the goods were shipped to their
final destinations. The pathways along the side of the canal were for the mules which
pulled the barges along their way. But with the coming of the railroads the canal
quickly became obsolete and Georgetown went into a decline. For almost a century it was
not much more than an aging slum area. In the years before World War II, Georgetown
began to come back to life. Dumbarton Oaks, a stately mansion became the home of the United
Nations Charter. And Georgetown became a fashionable and expensive place to live. John F. Kennedy lived in this house when he
was a United States senator. Today Georgetown is populated by several world-famous diplomats,
statesmen, journalists, and political figures. Georgetown University, the site of tonight’s
lecture, traces its beginnings to the earliest development of the Georgetown district. The
Most Reverend John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States, began collecting
funds for the first building in 1787. The building was completed in 1791, and the first
student was enrolled. One of the earliest buildings on the Georgetown
campus is known as Old North, on the steps of this building, George Washington addressed
the students of Georgetown on several occasions. And so did Lafayette, other presidents, and
scores of dignitaries throughout American history. While Georgetown was begun as a Catholic
University, today half of its faculty and a third of its students are of other faiths.
Some 10,000 students at Georgetown are offered a full academic program ranging from law and
medicine, to one of the world’s most advanced and sophisticated language and linguistic
laboratory. Being located in the heart of the diplomatic
community, it should be no surprise that Georgetown became the location for the first school of
foreign service in the United States. And the largest such school in the world. And
because of its association with the diplomatic community, the tradition started by George
Washington still survives. The most distinguished men in their fields consider it an honor to
address the students of Georgetown University. That tradition continues tonight with a lecture
by Professor Robert Nisbet on the social impact of the American Revolution. Dr. Nisbet is
introduced by the Project Director for the AEI Distinguished Lecture Series, Dr. Stephen
Tonsor, Professor of History, at the University of Michigan. Dr. Tonsor: Our speaker this evening was one
of those few men who 30 years ago was thinking hard about community and society. His book,
“The Quest for Community” is considered by many to be one of the major works in historical
sociology to have been written in the past half-century. It clearly establishes his place
in the great tradition in sociology which reaches from de Maistre through to Tocqueville,
Durkheim, and Tönnies, and it establishes him as a co-evo theoretician. The great sociologists have also been great
historians, Professor Nisbet is no exception. And I am tempted to describe him as an intellectual
historian with sociological insight. His lecture this evening, “The Social Impact of The Revolution”
will demonstrate, I think, how gracefully and rewardingly these two disciplines can
live together. Professor Nisbet. Dr. Nisbet: Thank you, Professor Tonsor, for
an introduction, both gracious and generous. Ladies and gentlemen, may I begin by indicating
the high sense of privilege that I feel to be lecturing on any subject at this university,
and in this magnificent Hall, and particularly on the subject of the American Revolution.
I am grateful indeed to the American Enterprise Institute, first for the splendid idea of
a series on the Bicentennial. And second, and far from least, the honor, the privilege,
the sheer pleasure of being among its lecturers. I’m going to begin with a question that to
many in the audience may seem almost irrelevant or perhaps impertinent. And the question is
simply, this, was there, in fact, an American Revolution at the end of the 18th century?
I mean a revolution, one involving sudden decisive and irreversible changes in social
institutions, groups, and traditions. In addition to the war of liberation from England that
we are more likely to celebrate. I could not have guessed before the last year
or two of unusually intensive reading on the subject of the American Revolution, how much
controversy that question generates at the present time among professional historians.
There are scholars whose answer to the question is strongly negative, that it was not a revolution
in the sense with which we are most familiar in that world. There are other scholars whose
affirmative answer to the question is emphatic. And furthermore, we discover it’s been this
way for a long time. Ever since Edmund Burke, there have been observers
to declare that revolution in any precise sense of the word, did not take place in the
colonies. That the essence of the matter was nothing more than one group of Englishmen
fighting on distant shores for traditionally English political rights against a British
government that sought to exploit and tyrannize. In other words, it was a war of restitution
and liberation, but not a revolution. In outcome, one set of political governors replaced another.
In J. L. Talmon’s words, “The American Revolution was a purely political change over, fundamental
institutions in society were not affected.” But at opposite extreme is the view reaching
from some of the founding fathers themselves down to some very able historians in our time.
And this view, I think, is amply embodied in John Adams’ statement in 1818 “That not
war, but revolution was the substance of what had happened.” He wrote, “The Revolution was
in the minds and hearts of people. A change in their religious sentiments of their duties
and obligations. This radical change in the principles or opinions, sentiments and affects
of the people was the real American Revolution.” Samuel Adams, ideologically, somewhat, to
the left of John Adams, a few years earlier, had written, “Was there ever a revolution
brought about especially so important a one as this, without great internal tumult and
violent convulsions?” Now I suggest that if there was a genuine revolution in America,
we shall find it, however dimly by comparison with other revolutions in modern Western history,
in the social sphere. The comparative study revolution makes clear,
I think, that the heart of each of the great modern revolutions is to be seen in the complex
of authorities, functions, bonds, and allegiances, which we think of as social. More specifically
I refer to property, kinship, religion, and social class. Now, it’s often said that the
American colonies were lacking in feudalism. The statement is a fairly common one I discover
in the literature, that America quote “skipped, feudal stage.” End quote. I cannot agree. The American colonies did indeed know feudalism.
Now when I refer to feudalism in the colonies, I certainly don’t have anything in mind resembling
the conceptual structure that Sir Henry Spellman gave this word when he coined it in the 17th
century. Much less do I have in mind anything resembling the ideal type that was conceived
by medieval Crusaders for the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Nor could we possibly pretend to find anything
analogous in the colonies to the baronial class, the fiefdoms and the systems of vassalage,
which flourished for several years…several centuries, in Western Europe. Actually, of course, there is a great deal
of almost constant controversy among European medievalists as to which part of Europe did
or did not have, “feudalism.” And for a great many year’s French historians have been extremely
chary about allowing England the privilege or the curse as you will, of feudalism, simply
on the ground that they celebrated Oath of Allegiance that William the first exacted
at Sarum from each free man, ruled out, utterly in the opinion of many French historians,
constitutional historians, the possibility of those ascending intermediate ties that
the French feel were crucial in feudalism. From the point of view of a sociologist or
comparative historian, the essence of feudalism does not seem to me to lie in these more obvious
structures, but rather in some of the following characteristics. First, an absence of centralization
of political government. Second, a profusion of intermediate associations of all kinds.
Also a high degree of localism, and regionalism, a clearly discernible stratification of rank
and privilege. A distinct fusion of economic and political power. Perhaps the crux of feudalism.
An established church, kinship united with land and property through provisions of primogeniture
and entail. The real clue to feudalism as Marc Bloch has
stressed, lies foremost in the nature of what he called “the ties of dependence.” When these
are deeply rooted in kinship and its surrogates, highly stratified, closely associated with
the land and its tenure, with strong emphasis on continuity of title, local and center of
legal gravity, a larger polity that is diffuse and decentralized with a concept of a central
government either dim or lacking altogether, we can properly refer in sufficient degree
I think to the existence of a feudal society. Certainly, the American colonies met all of
these criteria even though no one of them… though no one would wish to declare feudalism
in the colonies, they equaled in intensity of what was still existent at that time in
Europe. Relationship to land counted a great deal in the colonies. What Sir Louis Namier
and his England in the age of the American Revolution has written with England, primarily
in mind, applies no less to the American colonies. “The relations of groups of men to plots of
land, or organized communities to units of territory, form the basic content of political
history. Social stratifications and convulsions primarily arising from the relationship with
men to land, make the greater not always conscious part of the domestic history of nations. And
even under urban and industrial conditions, ownership of land counts for more than is
usually supposed.” End of quote, it counted for a great deal in the colonies. From Maine to Georgia, American life was rooted
in the land, never mind the fisheries and manufacturers of New England. As Benjamin
Franklin said, some years after the Revolutionary War “These did not occupy more than a 10th
of the number of persons engaged in New England’s less than benign setting in straight farming.” Vermont: We are watching Dr. Robert Nisbet,
discussing the social impact of the American Revolution. Dr. Nesbit has pointed out that
a form of feudalism existed in the colonies before the revolution. In just a moment he
will continue his discussion of that social condition. In the 1970s, Georgetown is one of the most
active and attractive sections of the nation’s capital. Some residents, in fact, think it
might be a little too active. Bustling M Street is Georgetown’s main thoroughfare. While President
Washington could ride his horse along what is now M Street in five or six minutes, today
it takes the driver of a high powered automobile as long as 30 minutes in the rush hour. Among
Georgetown’s main attractions are its lovely homes and surroundings. But as Dr. Nisbet
is pointing out in his Georgetown lecture, the homes here today are no rival to some
of the great estates found in pre-revolutionary America. Dr. Nisbet: Now from every known sociological
point of view, it is entirely characteristic of human beings that they would approach the
unknown, with perspectives drawn from the known. That they would occupy the new world
with ideas, customs, and techniques brought from the old, hence, among other elements,
the significant number of great estates. Some of them vast by European standards that we
find in New York, in the Middle Atlantic area, and in the coastal south. And with these great
estates, traditional ways of running them. I don’t question the fact that the new world
also brought new ideas and techniques, and some of these are assuredly to be seen in
the colonies. Adaptations however small, that bespeak the faculty of inventiveness in man.
But these excepted, there is no gainsaying in number and size of estates in the colonies
that could have excited the envy of even English proprietors. The manorial Grants in New York embraced more
than two and a half million acres. We read that in 1769 some five-sixths of the people
living in Westchester lived within the boundaries of great estates which were nothing if not
feudal in the relationships which they created. The famous Van Rensselaer Manor up the Hudson
measured some 24 by 28 miles, almost as large as Rhode Island. The Fairfax estate in Virginia
had at the height of its prosperity, 6 million acres. And the holdings of Lord Granville
in North Carolina, as sumptuously furnished and tenanted as anything in England where,
a third of the entire colony. To be sure there were small independent farms
in America, especially in New England, and in the remoter areas of the South. But then
so were there such holdings in England from the late middle ages on, and in France too
before the revolution in that country. The center of land and power lay nevertheless
in England, in France, and also in the American colonies with the great landowners. Whether
Dutch patrooms up the Hudson, or those in Virginia, like the Fairfax’s, Washington’s,
and so many others, who were to take leading roles eventually in opposition to England. And from these large manorial estates sprang
the class system that was a vivid feature of colonial America, clearly feudal, in ultimate
root and in essence. This system was surmounted by the large landowners in wealth, power,
culture and breeding, this class was fit analog to the English aristocracy. There was little
if any rhetoric about their equality with the rest of Americans. Admittedly, there was
from early on a significant element of equalitarianism in New England. And this is the section we
are most likely to have in mind when we speak of the non-feudal character of pre-revolutionary
America. But in most of the rest of the American colonies,
such equality was not often to be found. Below the great landowning families, there were
the tenant farmers, there were, of course, artisans, merchants, mechanics, laborers,
there were indentured servants. And far from least in the colonies, the Negro slaves. Now let me refer briefly to one other aspect
of American life that is certainly not without feudal connotation, the presence of established
religions in several of the colonies. Apparently, in 9 of the 13 colonies, something in the
way of established religion existed. Though this assuredly could mean different things
from one colony to another. Congregational-ism reigned in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and
Connecticut, in six other colonies it was the Church of England. And in none of these
we find was there a majority of the people that professed this established faith, even
though they were obliged, under greater or less compulsion to pay taxes toward the support
of the established Church of their colony. Finally, where feudalism is there are always
to be found primogeniture and entail. These quintessentially medieval customs, the first
granting inheritance of land only to the oldest son. The second making alienation of property
from the family difficult or impossible, were powerful in Europe. And it would have been
from a sociological point of view extremely unlikely that Europeans would have come to
this strange new land without these customs in mind. From the very beginning primogeniture and
entail took root at least in a great many parts of the colonies. Pennsylvania, Maryland,
New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia all knew primogeniture and entail
in their laws, and at the outbreak of the revolution only Pennsylvania and Maryland
had abolished primogeniture, only South Carolina had abolished entail. Even in New England
where these laws had little if any effect directly, there seems to have been a custom
which specified that when no will was left distribution of property would take place,
but with twice the amount going to the oldest son. In other words, the feudal union of kinship,
solidarity, and land was a by no means insignificant aspect of colonial life. Nor I should stress,
without a certain amount of conflict. Because just so long as the great estate survived
generation after generation, just so long was land, good land, in shorter supply for
the lower classes, surely we would not find the abolition of primogeniture and entail
so quick at the time of, and just after the Revolutionary War had there not been ample
evidence of the unpopularity of the disproportion in ownership of land. Popular dislike of the
landed aristocracy and its holdings could and did surface well before the revolution,
as, for example, in the tenant revolt in New York in 1776, and the Regulator Movement in
North Carolina, and indeed long after the revolution, up into the age of Jackson, in
the still vast landed estates in New York. In summary, there was a feudal system, I believe,
a personal dependence strongly rooted in ownership of land. A well-structured, visible class
system and giving powerful legal reinforcement in kinship, laws of primogeniture and entail
in the American colonies, prior to the Revolutionary War. And to add to these incontestable elements
a very considerable degree of establishment in religion. Vermont: Dr. Robert Nisbet has been discussing
his thesis that a feudal system and to some extent an established religion, existed in
America before the revolution. In just one moment Dr. Nisbet will point out how the revolution
radically changed these conditions. Georgetown University is widely known for
the successes of its alumni. This tradition of achievement begin with William Gaston,
who in 1791 became the first student to enroll at Georgetown. Gaston went on to become a
congressman and later Chief Justice of North Carolina. Today, 30% of all the doctors and
40% of all the dentists in the Washington DC area are Georgetown graduates. And more
high ranking government attorneys have been educated at Georgetown than any other American
University. On the campus today, Dr. Robert Nisbet is continuing his lecture on how the
American Revolution drastically altered social conditions in the colonies. Dr. Nisbet: Now, let me turn to the revolution
itself. I’ve tried to indicate my own conviction siding, obviously with one of the two major
schools on this point, and American Historical writing at the present time, my conviction
that feudalism was a reality in the colonies. And I have suggested also that in modern Western
history, revolutions have had to do fundamentally with feudalism in its several aspects. It is asked the question, would there have
been a revolution, a social revolution in the colonies rising from the social elements
that I have mentioned, and the issues which they generated, had war against England not
broken out over the political rights of the colonists? In other words, if an international
war had not broken the cake of custom as war so often does, which gives it linkage with
revolution and history, would a social revolution have been autonomously generated by the conditions
that I have described? Who can ever be sure? My own guess, based
speculatively, on comparative history is that no such change, at least of revolutionary
dimension would have occurred. Though very probably most of the changes in social structure
would have taken place more slowly over the period of the next half century. Admittedly,
we can only speculate, the nature and consequences of revolution are better known then the residual
causes. What we do know is that the onset of the war
with England generated in itself changes of a social character which could not help, but
have stimulated the latent social tensions and conflicts in the population. It is always
this way in some degree, at least with war. War and revolution have a great deal in common,
each is profoundly destructive of the traditions and authorities which make up civil society. For very good reason indeed, conservatives
from ancient times on, have been as suspicious of war as they have been of revolt or rebellion.
Certainly, there were measures taken in the interest of the war alone in the colonies
which affected social institutions, inequalities, property, family and other ties of dependence.
But this had been the case also in Puritan England, in revolutionary France, and in Russia.
In each of those three instances also, we are obliged to deal with the early stages
of revolution in connection with war. One need only list those aspects of our contemporary
welfare state, which had their historical origins in not socialist ideology, but war
emergency. To be made aware of how great is the role of war in the whole area of social
reconstruction in the West. We are justified in assuming that had there been nothing but
war, the political war with England, no pent up forces of social reconstruction and change
at all, in the pre-revolutionary colonies, there would still have been significant alterations
in the social structure following that war. Nevertheless, if we take the major areas of
revolutionary change in the late 18th century in America, we’re dealing in every instance
with a condition that can be properly considered, I think, in distinction from the war itself.
Let me take just three of these for brief consideration, each to be sure, an important
one. First, the relation between land and kinship.
I have referenced specifically here to the abolition of primogeniture and entail. Although
there had been pressure for a long time in each of the colonies where these feudal laws
existed, for their abolition, the fact remains that at the outbreak of the Revolutionary
War only Pennsylvania and Maryland had actually abolished primogeniture, only South Carolina
had abolished entail. But within a decade of the signing of the
Declaration of Independence, every state but two had abolished entails, and those two were
states in which entails were rare. And within 15 years every state without exception had
abolished primogeniture, and in some form instituted equality of inheritance. Now we
may not today be inclined at first thought to regard the abolition of customs like primogeniture
and entail as particularly revolutionary in change of social structure. We might, however, be advised by the testimony
of the great 19th century French sociologist Frédéric le Play undoubtedly the foremost
comparative sociologist in Europe of his time, who considered abolition of primogeniture
and entail the single most revolutionary change effected by the French Revolution. No longer
now did family property go to the oldest son alone. Now, it would go to all the children,
daughters included. Only two states, North Carolina and New Jersey failed to include
daughters at the same level as sons. Elsewhere full equality was the rule. If this does not astonish, merely look out
on the number of inequalities between the sexes in law and custom which persist even
in our equality oriented society of 200 years later. As we know Tocqueville when he visited
the United States in 1830, ’31 was impressed by the passion for equality in the United
States, almost above anything else that he witnessed. And he could not write enough about
the almost messianic sense of zeal that Americans displayed about how they were the most equalized
people on earth. If Tocqueville was sometimes skeptical in the reality, he was not skeptical
of the sincerity, the genuineness, of the feeling itself. Undoubtedly, a good deal of value in the way
of the ties of dependence was lost under the thrust of the new equalitarian ideal during
and after the revolution, but much was gained too. We know that the revolution was in substantial
degree carried by youth. As is so often the case in history, the young tended more often
to be on the side of the revolution than the old, not infrequently, families were divided
in this respect. We learned that among all the leaders of the revolution, very few were
over 40 years of age. In this respect too you see, the American
and the French revolutions have much in common, but we can perhaps find some of the relative
moderation of the American Revolution in the fact that its leaders we’re not quite as young
as were those who guided the Jacobeans. There was some division though it was far from perfect,
in character that is, in property lines. For the most part, the cause of the revolution
lay with the common people rather than with the aristocracy and the large landowners.
Keeping in mind that Virginia and the south in general, furnished some indispensable leaders
from the aristocracy, the fact remains that in most parts of the colonies, Tories were
much more likely to come from the large landowners and the wealthy than from the lower classes.
Even so, it would be a mistake to try to find as perfect a division in terms of social classes
as we can find in the French Revolution. A kind of analysis that such a historian as
Georges Lefebvre has been able to make for the French Revolution and its division almost
absolute by class, is impossible to make in the American Revolution. There were tenant
farmers in abundance who thought then with some justice, that there was greater likelihood
of land distribution to be made in their favor by a victorious Crown, then by some of the
Whig revolutionaries. One must be very careful in trying to class
angle the American Revolution, but this fact in no way minimizes the existence of classes.
It remains the large class of Negro slaves. It would be splendid if we were able to say
that under the principles of liberty and equality, half a million blacks were given their freedom.
And thus to get off to an earlier American start the long and tragic struggle for political,
legal and economic equality. Clearly, we cannot. But it would be a gross oversight to fail
to note the impetus, the revolution gave for the abolitionist movement. Well, before the
Revolutionary War began, they were intellectuals in all parts of the colonies, men of high
social place, they would come to hate the slavery system. And above all, the ugly slavery
trade across the Atlantic. At the time the revolution broke out there were about a half
a million slaves in the 13 colonies most of them of course, in the south, but a fair number
in the north. Some 25,000 in New York, perhaps 55,000 in the whole of the north. The first Anti-slavery Society founded in
the United States, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, was on April 14th,
1775, in Philadelphia, most of the members being Quakers. Other such societies soon followed.
The Continental Congress in 1774, had decreed an American Association, that is a non-importation
agreement, and the prohibition on slave trading seems to have held up throughout the war.
Legislators began to act. In July of 1774, Rhode Island passed a law to the effect that
thenceforth all slaves brought in should be freed. The preamble to that bill is instructive
insofar as the larger American mind is concerned. Whereas the preamble begins, the inhabitants
of America are generally engaged in the preservation of their own rights and liberties, among which
that of personal freedom must be considered as the greatest, and as those who are desirous
of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves, should be willing to extend personal
liberty to others. And there follows the text of the decree, emancipating all black slaves,
brought into that state. Granted that the revolution, in fighting for
the freedom and rights of all men, failed for a variety of causes to free the half million
blacks. The fact remains that the ideas put forward under revolutionary impress were to
prove powerful ideas in the long run, ideas to be found in the recent civil rights revolution
of our own day. Vermont: Dr. Robert Nisbet has been discussing
social conditions in America before and after the revolution, and how that revolution greatly
affected the American way of life. In just one moment he will continue his address from
Gaston Hall, at Georgetown University. Georgetown, today is a study in contrast.
Key Bridge named after Francis Scott Key is indeed a key artery joining the Virginia suburbs
of Washington, DC with the city itself. The bridge spans the Potomac River and the old
C&O Canal. The canal, which was once the heart of Georgetown commerce is now a recreation
area, a place for quiet walks, or a Sunday bicycle ride, but overhead parallel to the
path of the canal, is the flight path to Washington’s busy National Airport. In Georgetown University’s
Gaston Hall, Dr. Robert Nisbet is contrasting the social conditions in America before and
after the revolution. Dr. Nisbet: Now, I wanna turn in conclusion
to a different but related problem. If I’m correct in believing that a social revolution
did indeed take place in conjunction with a war of liberation, despite the existence
of a long and impressive body of thought from Edmund Burke down to such historians as Hannah
Arendt, J. L. Talmon, Daniel Boorstin, Clinton Rossiter, Louis Hartz, and others. Despite
the testimony, which I regard as indeed very impressive against the position that I have
taken here. But if I am correct, in believing that a social revolution did indeed take place
in conjunction with the war, why, we have to ask, did it never achieved the internal
ferocity, the lasting hatred between antagonist parties, the fanaticism, and not least the
atmosphere of terror that have so commonly gone with revolutions in modern history? I’m inclined to think that in very large degree
it is the manifest lack of these elements of zeal and hatred afterward in the American
Revolution that has led this long line of distinguished observers beginning with Burke
to deny the label of revolution all together to the momentous events in America at the
end of the 18th century. And to thereby place the American Revolution in an essentially
conservative context. I’ve said that I think it was a genuine social
revolution, differing only in degree from the kinds of revolution that had occurred
in Puritan England, France, beginning 1789 and even in the Russia of 1918. And I would
like to offer these few reasons for the phenomena of consensus and continuity of the American
Revolution, in contrast to what we know to exist in these other countries. First of all, the American Revolution was
necessarily a dispersed revolution. Nothing comparable to a London, Paris or Moscow existed
in America. That is, a large powerful city steeped in historical traditions of turbulence.
Nor was there in America anything approximating the centralization of rule of the other countries.
England had become the most centralized polity in Europe at the time of the Puritan revolt. France was very centralized as a long line
of historians beginning with Tocqueville has shown us, and certainly, there was ample centralization
of government however ineptly exercised in Russia. Nothing of this sort existed, however,
or could have existed in America. Our five cities were small and modest, indeed by European
standards, and there is nothing to suggest that they contained very many of the elements
of incipient revolt, which were to be found in some of the European cities. Moreover, given the background of a highly
distinct and proudly separate colonies, it was wholly unlikely that any city where the
new American central government might lie, could possibly have intimidated the states
and their governments. In some, the spirit of restraint was rooted in substantial degree
in the practical realities of localism and regionalism. Second, also there is the fact of the spirit
and structure of intermediate association, a voluntary association in the United States.
I’m aware that fear of conspiracies such as that attending word of the organization of
the Society of Cincinnati, and soon after fear of Masons, Catholic groups, and others
is a constant feature of American history. The late Richard Hofstadter has written definitively
of this. Nevertheless, as European visitors early became
aware there was an inherent buoyancy of associational mutual aid, of self-help, of desire for functional
association that stood in striking contrast to European experiences where political centralization
had rendered many such associations weak before the revolutions in those countries, and their
legal contexts precarious. The revolutionary government in France in
1791, even before Jacobean repression was at its height, made all associations above
a certain small number of members illegal. And this issue of freedom of association remained
a vital one in French politics for many decades. There is none of that in America, and there
is nothing like a vigorous intermediate area, a voluntary association, to take the heat
off the political state and to prevent social interest from compulsively becoming translated
into political crusades and movements. Third, I account the continuing religious
quality of American culture an important factor. Granted that there is evidence of a falling
off of religious devotions in the 18th century. And that the war itself hurt religion and
churches badly. Granted too, that few if any of the principals, the leading figures in
the revolution, were notably religious. Nevertheless, religion was strong in its American roots.
The great revivals to come in the early 19th century would surely suggest this. And while there was dislike of religious establishment
as we have seen, there was little if any of that blind hate that ingrained anti-clericalism
that the Roman Catholic Church had brought upon itself in France, or that the Anglican
Church had in England earlier, or the Russian Orthodox Church by the beginning of the 20th
century. And in its very continuation of religious
spirit among large numbers of people, there was provided from the outset I suggest, an
important counter-power to political zeal. High among the reasons I think for the absence
of the kind of destructive zeal, and ideological militants in America, that we associate properly
with other modern revolutions, is the lack of an intellectual class in the American colonies
that is, in any way, comparable to the philosophes in France, or to the Bolsheviks revolutionaries
in general, in Russia, each with an ingrained antagonism to an Ancien Régime. I’m well aware that in individual’s like Jefferson,
Adams, Dickinson, Randolph, and others who prominently figured in the colonies during
the 1770s and 1780s, and who helped lead the revolution, that we are dealing with superbly
educated minds. Minds, moreover, actuated by assumptions and ideals of natural rights,
including the right to equality. But these leaders were almost entirely men whose lives
were rooted in their social order. Very different is the line of intellectuals in Europe that
has figured so prominently in its revolutionary disturbances. A line characterized from the Italian humanists
onward, by a kind of rootlessness an alienation from society, an overriding hostility toward
traditional structures of authority. And far from least, an obsession with power for its
own sake. In America, the 18th century we have nothing comparable to a Puritan New Model
Army Council of Agitators, no Lilburne, no Levellers, no Diggers, least of all did we
have a Robespierre and Saint-Just, a Lénin and Trotsky. And it is in this respect I believe that pragmatism
asserted itself in America. Also it might be noted, and this too gives the American
Revolution a certain uniqueness, the same group that started it, that is those who were
its leaders at the outset, where its leaders at the conclusion. Very different, the French
Revolution which was begun as we know by a group of moderate-minded aristocrats interested
really in little more than reclaiming some of the rights of the nobility which had been
lost to the Berman house. Their places as we know were taken by a succession of leaders
each prior to Thermidor, more radical, more revolutionary than the predecessors. Six, there is the fact that the war with England
for all of its difficulties and hardships and occasional doubts of success was won so
clearly and decisively with such manifest benefits to almost all the inhabitants, that
the war itself was never able to become a burning issue. As for example, Vietnam became
in the 1960s and may prove to be for a long time. As the war in France proved to be for
decades and decades after Napoleon’s defeat and so forth. There was substantial consensus, once it was
over. And while Tories owning large estates, saw these confiscated, producing bitterness
beyond any question. Nevertheless, that canker never had a chance really to develop internally
in America. The important point is that unlike the English, French and Russian situations,
consensus tended rather quickly to prevail. Whereas the French Revolution remained a burning
issue for generations, indeed to this very day, producing fundamental divisions in politics,
this was not, it never has been the case in America. Hence the remarkable fact that the
revolution in America could become an almost universal object of celebration by conservatives,
liberals, and radicals. Finally, there is the fact that at no time
were there completely absorptive, class lines in the American war and revolution. I noted
above that on the whole, the common people were the stoutest advocates of the Revolution
and the war with England, the wealthy and the educated, less so. And in the large this
is true. But if we look into the local ties of classes, we often find something quite
different. That there were tenant farmers, for example, with strong sympathies for the
British forces, is well known. These individuals could see a better future for themselves so
far as land holdings were concerned resulting from the Crown’s victory than from anything
associated with the Whig landowners that the tenants knew only too well. But the only important point here is that
while the generalization uttered above has some validity, that is a larger proportion
of the common people than of the wealthy and the educated classes supported the revolution,
the exceptions are sufficiently numerous in the colonies to make for a very different
situation than existed in France before and during the revolution there. In conclusion, the American Revolution was
indeed that, a revolution, social, institutional, and moral, as well as a war of political liberation
from England. The internal aspect may not seem as brilliant as the external, a fault,
I think largely of our history books. But the evidence suggests to me that the two were
closely intertwined. To refer to it, as some of our finest scholars have, as a purely local
affair, as something carrying with it little more than political change-over of Anglo Saxon
governors, seems to me short-sighted and crippling to our self-image. Assuredly, such a conception does injury to
the view the makers of the revolution themselves took. Whether a radical Sam Adams, a liberal
Jefferson, or a conservative John Adams. A line from the social revolution of the 1780s
to the civil rights movement of the 1960s is a direct one. The United States is indeed
in its history, a process of almost continuous revolution. And I can think of no greater
injustice to ourselves than to deny that fact, and to allow the honorable metaphor of revolution
to be preempted by societies today, in which revolution has been made all but impossible.
Thank you. Vermont: You’ve just heard a lecture by Dr.
Robert Nisbet, on the social impact of the American Revolution. Dr. Nisbet pointed out
that a social revolution occurred in America in conjunction with the Revolutionary War.
Tonight’s lecture is one of a series presented by the American Enterprise Institute dealing
with many aspects of the American Revolution, and how that revolution still affects America
and the world today. If you would like a copy of Dr. Nisbet’s lecture
or the entire series, write the American Enterprise Institute. That’s AEI post office box 19191,
Washington, DC 20036. Until next time, this is Vermont Royster, thank you for joining
us.




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