Tale of Two Revolutions

Every Fourth of July, the New York Times runs a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. Readers can marvel at the graceful loops and swirls of John Hancock's handwriting. But I wonder how many readers take time to marvel at what the document actually says. 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 what they felt were 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 Jean Jacques 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 were revolting in order to preserve their society, not to destroy it. They were committed to their traditions and way of life and were determined to protect them from tyranny. Another crucial difference: The French Revolution was avowedly atheistic. Alex de Tocqueville wrote that, at the time, hostility toward religion was "fierce, intolerant, and predatory." The revolutionaries even introduced a new calendar, starting the first year not with Jesus' birth but with the revolution. 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. Another difference: The French 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. As a result, it soon became even more corrupt than the government it replaced. The American founders, however, held the biblical teaching that humanity is intrinsically prone to evil. In their words, man is "depraved." As a result, they wove a network of checks and balances into the new government to protect against abuses of power. One final difference: In the end the French Revolution devoured its own children. Many of its leaders fell before the guillotine. Order was finally restored by the iron fist of Napoleon. But the American Revolution gave birth to 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 even 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. 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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