Violence, Democracy, and Passage of Time

Today seems like one of those days when the myth of the American Revolution has a really negative effect on public debate. The attacks on US Embassies in Libya and Egypt, it goes without saying, are tragic acts of violence. They show that the course of democracy is a dangerous one, that in any polity there exist those who wish to destroy it, and that for many people, defending liberty is something that means more than just typing out a few words on a blog.

When I think about the American Revolution, though, I’m struck by just how fast we expect the blessings of democracy to transform a nation’s fortunes. Politicians will praise the genius of the Constitution, and the genius of the ‘Founding Generation’. Public history all too often presents an image of the Revolution with singular linearity between the Stamp Act, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, blithely ignoring the fact there were a full 22 years between those events – if we include the ratification of the Bill of Rights, we’re looking at 26 years. Or, to put it another way, it’s like collapsing everything that happened between the end of Reagan’s Presidency and now into one moment.

If we consider the Revolution as a longer process, then it’s not at all surprising to find that it was a contingent and messy event. Many of the participants changed their mind on a number of key issues. There were periods of panic when people stopped to think whether the risks they’d taken were worth it. When people pondered if it was even possible for a nation to be conceived in liberty.

Take the case of James Wilson. Insofar as he has a popular reputation today, it is as the democrat in the Constitutional Convention who insisted that a governmental ‘pyramid’ raised to a high level needed as broad a base as possible. Eight years before that, though, he was two blocks from Independence Hall fearing for his life as a mob, or the city militia (delete according to your perspective) surrounded his house, hoping to arrest him over his role in defending those accused of collaborating with the British during their occupation of Philadelphia. Some of Pennsylvania’s most prominent politicians (including numerous members of the future Constitutional Convention) stood alongside him on his balcony. Shots rang out and people died on the streets of Philadelphia, not at the hands of the British, but at the hands of Americans.

If you were wondering what effect the Fort Wilson incident had on Pennsylvanian politics, by the way, it seems most likely that the populace supported the militia/mob. I’m not one for monocausality in explaining election results, and there was an awful lot going on in Pennsylvania in 1779. But the elections for the Pennsylvania Assembly that year definitely helped the supporters of the militia more than the friends of Wilson. Or to put it another way, at least in the short term, violence worked.

Remember, though, those incidents occurred in 1779 – three years after Independence, eight years before the Constitution. Even if Egypt and Libya and the other countries of the Arab Spring were to follow the American timeline, we’d be waiting until 2024 for them to put the key planks of constitutional stability into place. And when we’re comparing this to America, it’s also worth bearing in mind that there was no murdered leader like Gaddafi; no physically deposed and arrested tyrant like Mubarak. While there was definitely a problem with loyalism, and while scores of the revolutionary war had to be settled, there wasn’t the decades of oppression and the institutionalization of the military that exists in North Africa.

There is no magic wand of democracy. Throughout history, democracy has only been achieved at great personal and physical risk – all too often, it has only been achieved at the point of a gun. And when leaders have been deposed, that doesn’t mean that a new, stable regime can instantly take its place. After all, mankind is more disposed to suffer, while evils remain sufferable, than to abolish the forms of government to which they have become accustomed. Democracy takes time. It is a violent, messy, unclean process. The sooner our history and our public memory remembers this fact, the sooner we might be able to make progress in the present.

About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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One Response to Violence, Democracy, and Passage of Time

  1. Joseph Keel says:

    This was a truly insightful thing to read Dr. Owen. I wish I would have stumbled upon this blog while I was still in your classes at UIS to discuss them further.

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