Tale of Two Revolutions

On the fourth of July, the New York Times ran a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. Readers could marvel at the loops and swirls of John Hancock's graceful handwriting. But I wonder how many readers took time to marvel at what it said. The Declaration of Independence is unique in the history of revolutionary documents. It doesn't rally the masses to overthrow society, as most revolutionary manifestos do. The tone is calm and reasonable. Nor is it an invitation to lawlessness, because the colonists believed their demands were lawful. They weren't destroying a legal order, they were demanding their legitimate rights within a legal order. To understand how remarkable this really is, compare the American revolution to the French Revolution, only a few years later. The French revolution was driven by a fanatical determination to destroy the existing social order. The leaders were disciples of Rousseau, who believed that individual corruption is caused by a corrupt society. The solution, they said, is to raze the corrupt society to the ground. The goal of the American revolution was exactly the opposite: The colonists revolted to preserve their society. They were committed to their traditions and way of life, and were determined to protect them from tyranny. Here's another difference: The French revolution was avowedly atheistic. Tocqueville says hostility toward religion at the time was "fierce, intolerant, and predatory." The revolutionaries even introduced a new calendar, starting not with Jesus' birth but with the year of the revolution as Year One. By contrast, many of the leaders of the American revolution were devout Christians. A major impulse behind the revolution was a passion for religious freedom. In France, the revolutionaries were utopian. Just tear down corrupt social institutions, they said, and people's natural virtue will shine through. In their optimism, they placed no restraints on the new government they formed--with the result that it soon became even more corrupt than the government it replaced. The American Founders, on the other hand, believed the biblical teaching that humanity is intrinsically prone to evil. As they put it, man is "depraved." As a result, they wove a network of checks and balances into the new government to protect against abuses of power. The French revolution in the end devoured its own children: Many of its leaders fell before the guillotine. It took the iron fist of Napoleon finally to restore order. But the American revolution produced a country both prosperous and free. Its leaders were elected to high office and later died peacefully in their beds. No wonder Irving Kristol calls the American revolution the only successful revolution in modern history. Perhaps too successful. Our own revolution was so unproblematic that its seminal ideas were quietly forgotten. Today almost no student of political science reads the literature of that period, like The Federalist Papers. And few really understand our revolutionary heritage. And that ignorance could be a greater threat to America's freedom than any outside force has ever been.


Chuck Colson


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