Revolutionary divides

By Lorenzo

It is in the nature of successful revolutions (successful in the sense of imposing a new political order which persists) to divide their society. They represent a political bargain implemented by force. Those against whom such force was applied are not participants in the revolutionary bargain, they have it imposed on them.

The Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution all had this effect. The alienated from the Glorious Revolution were the Jacobites, from the American Revolution were the Tories and from the French Revolution throne-and-altar France.

Absent, faded or enduring

Of the three Revolutionary regimes, the American revolutionary republic was by far the most ruthlessly successful in dealing with the said divide. The American Tories were expelled and their property confiscated. (The American Revolution generated more refugees than did the French Revolution.) Thereafter, there may have been arguments about the implications of the Revolution (in a sense, Americans have argued about little else since) but being in favour of the Revolution itself (even if not quite the same Revolution was being conceived) has been the overwhelming social consensus. Hence the US Constitution–the embodiment of said consensus Revolution–being the icon it is. Given that migrants went to the US precisely because it was the polity that the Revolution created, they have not disturbed that social consensus or the Constitution’s iconic status. (If anything, they have reinforced it.)

The political order established by Glorious Revolution was not in a position to simply expel all supporters of the deposed King James and had to endure various Celtic fringe revolts for decades after. Indeed, the last, 1745, was the biggest and most threatening. One could say that Catholic Ireland was never fully reconciled to the new order, but as it had never been fully reconciled to any English dominated order, that is not really a case of a revolutionary divide. (Of course, one could also argue the failure to incorporate Catholic Ireland as a participant in the new political order entrenched Irish alienation.)

In the end, the passage of time won, more or less. The Revolutionary political bargain was broad enough, and flexible enough, to expand to encompass the previously disenfranchised. Though the harrowing of the Highlands after the disaster at Culloden (1746) was the iron fist which blocked off alternatives. To claim that the contemporary push for Scottish independence represents a continuing divide over the Glorious Revolution seems an excessively long bow, since even the pro-independence Scots want to continue along the broad constitutional path the Revolution established. They are about reversing the Act of Union (1707), not the Revolutionary settlement.

The French Revolution is a complex case. There was fairly clearly a resurgence of the Revolution-alienated in the radical right politics of the 1930s, for example, and in the Vichy regime. A resurgence one could reasonable argue has re-manifested in the electoral prominence of the Front National today. The politics of the guillotine made the French Revolution far more elite fratricidal than either the American or Glorious Revolutions, while the brutality of the suppression of the Vendee also has no real counterpart in either the Glorious or American Revolutions. So France remains a country where the divide over its Revolution remains a much more live issue than in the UK or the US. That the French Revolution was not able to create a stable political order (again, unlike the American or Glorious Revolutions)–France currently being on its Fifth Republic, having also had two Empires and three Monarchies since the Revolution–also points to a more divided society.

Sui generis framing

That the US Revolutionary order became functionally consensual so early may distort American perspectives. Certainly, they had their own Civil War, but that can be put in the slavery box. Either way, it was not a revolt against the Revolutionary Order as such, but a fight over its implications. The Confederate Constitution was, after all, just a tweaking of the US Constitution, with the tweakings being very much about slavery.

But Americans can look at their country, one that was always ethnically mixed, see a common political (and to some extent social) enterprise agreed upon and a stable political order being created. The expulsion of the Tories gets written out of the story, the British legal and political heritage also gets somewhat written out (or taken for granted: that they were fortunate heirs of the Glorious Revolution is not much dwelled upon) and the Civil War becomes a heroic fight over a noble cause and a peculiar institution, enabling it to be put in a special historical box. So they can look at a country like Iraq and not consider how much they are treating a backwash of European imperialism as an inviolable entity. Not every political inheritance is a suitable basis for that workable social bargaining that makes for stable political orders.

Yes, the US Founding Fathers created (on the second try) an enduring political order, but they were dealing with populations who had already been through the selective process of migrating there in the first place as well as the experience of representative politics within the British colonies. Electoral social bargaining was already part of their operative experience in relatively egalitarian social settings (given Amerindians and slaves were not part of the political nation). As was the notion of some broad common enterprise.  American historical experience is fairly sui generis. It is a poor basis for thinking about societies with very different histories and structures. But moving outside American framings is both conceptually difficult and politically fraught. Yet, without such moving beyond American framings, American policy is going to continue to have a ham-fisted quality when dealing with very different societies and histories.


  1. Nigel Davies
    Posted June 28, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    It is amusing to note that the only reason the American Republic has come close to working (if we ignore slavery and 600,000 dead in a civil war as part of that definition), is because they were heirs to the British legal and social system and Glorious Revolution environment that they completely ignore in their history.

    Which explains why, when they try, and fail, to impose a Republic on the colonies or nations they conquer, they genuinely don’t have a clue what is going wrong.

    The old hackneyed saying ‘those a who don’t understand their history are doomed to repeat it’ unfortunately now applies as ‘those who don’t understand why and how their system works are doomed to try and impose it where anyone who did have that understanding would know it would not work’.

  2. Posted July 1, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] A little harsh on Madison, who clearly did a failure analysis on historical republics to try and get around their flaws. Clearly not entirely successfully, but the slavery thing would have been hard for any system to manage. But obviously I agree about the lack of understanding point.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *