The Half-Shot Heard Round the World

This morning in recognition of the Fourth of July James Joyner posted a tongue in cheek fisking of the Declaration of Independence, repeating many of the arguments made by crown loyalists at the time. Almost immediately a dispute broke out in the comments section over whether today’s conservatives or progressives were the legitimate heirs of the American Revolution.

In my view the very discussion is absurd. The terms “left” and “right” to describe different political viewpoints weren’t even used until after the French Revolution and they meant utterly different things now than they did then. A conservative of today no more resembles a conservative of then or a liberal of today a liberal then than I resemble Angelina Jolie which is to say not at all (barring, of course, as Sam Clemens put it, that natural look of villainy that we all have).

You can barely use the terms “conservative” or “liberal” to make meaningful comparisons between the United States of today and the United States of 40 years ago, let alone of 230 years ago.

That having been said I think that I’ll stick to what, I believe, has been believed since Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution or earlier to Edmund Burke. The American Revolution was a conservative one in that it sought to secure the rights of landholders by restoring what they saw as the old order of things (“the rights of Englishmen”) as opposed to the French Revolution which was progressive in that it sought to overthrow the old order in favor of a new, better one.

Consequently, I would say that, although the American Revolution most definitely was a liberal one, it was not a progressive one and neither today’s conservatives nor today’s progressives can lay any special claim on it.

3 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Agreed. Same goes for much of the debates about the 1800s and early 1900s. The parties are much different now.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree with your description of the American Revolution. Americans probably need a better understanding of the Glorious Revolution to understand that most of our governmental innovations were essentially an attempt to recreate something that had been broken. If you don’t understand how Alexander Hamilton’s proposal for an elected monarch could have been seriously considered, then you probably think all of the Founding Fathers prayed at the alter of Thomas Paine.

  • It might also help if they knew why John Washington decided to stay in the colonies rather than return to England as he’d planned. It wasn’t because he had nothing in the home country—the Washingtons continued to own land in England in George’s time.

    Jefferson is an interesting case, too. If the speculations about his Welsh origins are correct timing of their emigration would certainly suggest a connection with the Glorious Revolution. About the Randolphs there is little doubt: they fled the Glorious Revolution and were unable to regain their property after the restoration of the monarchy.

    That’s a pattern common to the southern founding fathers. The northern founding fathers tended more to be of burgher stock.

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