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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  

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To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind (Burke, 1790).
The American Revolution ushered in an era of revolutions, including the French Revolution in the following decade and the later uprisings in the Caribbean and Latin America colonies. In the early days of the French Revolution, many citizens in the United States and even Great Britain met the news with optimistic euphoria. Edmund Burke's response, however, was far less sanguine. A prominent member of the Whig party in Britain, Burke had been one of the most outspoken supporters of the rights of the American colonies in the years that lead to the American Revolution. He spoke highly of the colonists before British Parliament, and continued to support them even after war broke out (Robinson, 2004). Burked viewed the French Revolution in a very different context than the American Revolution. In 1790, the year after the beginning of the French Revolution but three years before the Reign of Terror, Burke published Reflections of the Revolution in France. In this work he predicted dire consequences to the Revolution. His book was widely read, but met a highly unreceptive audience. Some even thought that the old man had lost his mind.

man at guillotine
The French revolutionary Robespierre, who sent thousands to their deaths, is himself executed

Burke's concerns rested on the idea that in order to overthrow the existing government, France had had to undermine the principles by which the society had run. As flawed as any pre-existing system of government may be, it takes a long time and a great deal of trial and error to create a functional society. No matter how high sounding the principles may be society runs into serious problems when it forsakes its proceeding conventions. Government based on ideas and not practical experience and solid knowledge of human character, risks calamitous failure. When a government becomes too innovative, it compromises the human inhibitions that allow people to co-exist in a civilized setting, and opens the gates to atrocities.

The following year Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man as a response to Burke's book. Paine, who had been an admirer of Burke until he read Reflections of the Revolution in France, was an avid supporter of the French Revolution. To him, the American and French Revolutions were practically synonymous, and a part of the global expansion of liberty and improvement of civil rights. He saw Burke's book as a betrayal of those principles and very aggressively criticized Burke's interpretation of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine went to France after the beginning of the French Revolution to show his support. Paine, however, voiced qualms when the new government decided to execute the king and queen. As a result he was imprisoned for a time, and he ended up fleeing France to preserve his own life (Robinson, 2004).

Revolutions are not rare events in world history. But Burke made an important point in his book, that the success of a revolution should be measured by its results and not its ideas. Burke's and Paine's books addressed the French, rather than the American Revolution. However, the ideas expressed in both works have bearing not only on both revolutions, but on the wider scope of history. The American Revolution serves as a more or less obvious subtext of the French Revolution, both in these literary works, and in history. Would the French Revolution have even occurred without the American Revolution?

To Burke there was a profound difference between these two revolutions and factors that would lead to profound differences in their outcomes. The colonies that eventually formed the United States had a fairly high degree of autonomy in the early days of their development, so at least at a local level were familiar with self rule. They were rebelling against a distant power instead of conducting a strictly internal revolt. But very importantly, the founding fathers had a superb grasp of history and strong literary and political heritage to draw upon. In forming a new government, they were not attempting to divorce themselves from their own traditions or political precedents. Instead, they were able to look at the best ideas that history had to offer, and attempt to synthesize a new nation based on the lessons they had learned.

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References

  1. Aristotle. Politics, 2009. Oxford University Press, New York.

  2. Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, 2009. Random House, New York.

  3. Burke, Edmond. Reflections on the Revolution in France, 2009. Oxford University Press, New York.

  4. Cicero. The Republic and The Laws, Trans. Niall Rudd, 2008. Oxford University Press, New York.

  5. Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: Part II, The Life of Greece, 1939. Simon and Schuster, New York.

  6. Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: Part III, Caesar and Christ, 1944. Simon and Schuster, New York.

  7. Hume, David. Political Discourses, 1752. Kessinger Publishing's Legacy Reprints.

  8. Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence, 1776.

  9. Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, 2005. Digireads.com Publishing, Stilwell.

  10. Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. Considerations on the Causes of The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, Trans. David Lowenthal, 1999. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis.

  11. Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. The Spirit of Laws, 2002. Prometheus Books, New York.

  12. Paine, Thomas. Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings, 2009. Classic House Books, New York.

  13. Plato. The Republic, 2003. Penguin Books, New York.

  14. Robinson, Daniel. American Ideals: Founding a "Republic of Virtue", 2004. The Teaching Company, Chantilly.

  15. Taylor, Dale. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America from 1607-1783, 1997. Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati.