When the Means Were the Ends: On the Exceptionalism of the American Revolution

Varun Menon, University of Pennsylvania,

“Sincerely wishing, that as men and Christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

One could ask why the American Revolution, among the earliest mass political movements in the modern world, produced such profound success in accomplishing its ends: the deposition of a king, the refutation of an imperial parliament, the establishment of a longstanding republic, and the eventual extension of universal rights to an unprecedented share of the public through the course of history. With the exception of the Civil War, fought roughly one century into the formation of the republic, the United States has evolved peacefully towards the ideal America envisaged in the Declaration of Independence.

Why the American Revolution succeeded might be best understood by examining the reasons that other movements of similar or even grander scale failed, both before and after the colonists kicked their imperial masters to the curb. Before the American Revolution, there is one intriguing example of failed revolution that would have been fixed in the minds of 18th century Americans. The British Civil Wars instructed the leaders of the American patriot cause on how not to conduct a revolution.

When King Charles I and his armed soldiers entered the English House of Commons on January 4, 1642 with armed soldiers at his back, he demanded that Speaker of the House William Lenthall disclose the whereabouts of five members who stood accused of treason against the Crown for their strident insistence on a range of parliamentary privileges. In response, Speaker Lenthall fell to his knees and cried, “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here.” It was an unprecedented moment in Western history, as Parliament, the elected representative assembly, asserted its sovereignty. With this unsatisfactory conclusion, Charles withdrew from Westminster and eventually from London as Parliament called up the militia and eventually raised the New Model Army to defend itself against the king.

Despite these dramatic occurrences, the English Civil War began as a seemingly harmless uprising against a stingy king, who attempted to rule and impose taxes without the consent of Parliament. The aims of the vast majority in the English Parliament was not the overthrow of the king, but rather his acquiescence to the constitutional traditions of parliamentary privilege that they believed essential to English government. One might have expected the result to have not been too significantly different from that of the Baron’s Uprising of 1214-1215, which had produced the Magna Carta and a tradition of royal rule by law and consent that had yielded to the creation of the first English parliaments. But this was not to be. As the war raged on, the aims of the rebellion became increasingly radical to the point that monarchy itself was in danger.

When Charles was defeated and captured in 1648, Parliament deliberated on what to do with him. Dissatisfied with Parliament’s remaining moderates who accepted a lackluster compromise with the king, Oliver Cromwell, a member of Parliament and leader of the New Model Army, ordered Colonel Thomas Pride to forcibly purge Parliament of all those not willing to take radical action against the king. With those members now barred, Parliament tried the king, pronounced him guilty of tyranny years prior and executed him. Shortly afterward, the House of Commons abolished the monarchy, permanently dissolved its aristocratic counterpart, the House of Lords, and proclaimed the Commonwealth of England.

As the remaining “Rump Parliament” attempted to establish a republic based on the sovereignty of representative rule, Cromwell and his subordinates in the army became increasingly dissatisfied with the slow and cumbersome process of parliamentary governance; just four years into the Commonwealth, Cromwell unilaterally decreed the abolition of Parliament itself and the assumption of personal rule as Lord Protector. The radicalism of the English Civil War had been its own undoing. The Lord Protector might have read, “Let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest” in Chapter XVIII of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince to mean that it was necessary and justified for him to save England from its tyrannical past by ruling unilaterally in the face of the feckless Parliament and inconvenient constitutional arrangement that had been devised.

But instead of saving England from tyranny, he only recreated it in almost the same form and thus is remembered as a despot of almost biblical stature. The English Revolution for the rights of man and the consent of the governed collapsed as a result, and the king was eventually invited back to rule after Cromwell’s death. Contracting what might fairly or unfairly be labelled the Machiavellian disease of the ends justifying the means, the revolutionaries that had endeavored to institute a fair form of government to protect the rights of the people through the consent of the governed were themselves seduced by the absolute power that they had so loathed before.

When the Continental Congress convened more than a century later in 1774 to begin what would become the long road to American independence, there was growing frustration that the fundamental rights of the people and the consent of the governed that the English Civil War had been waged on were not being respected by the British Crown and Parliament. The colonies resolved to make peace while still remaining committed to upholding the principles of liberty that they believed was their natural right, but were rebuked at every turn. Believing that all avenues had been exhausted, they issued the Declaration of Independence, outlining exactly what their reasons for rebellion were and what they hoped to accomplish through a forcible break with Great Britain. At the same time, the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation to serve as the new nation’s governing constitution and instrument of union. When ratified by the requisite colonies by 1781, the Articles became binding law.

With the war effort against the British requiring quick and decisive action, General George Washington and the Continental Army were constantly left wanting by the Congress and colonial legislatures. To them it must have seemed that useless politicians could not place the greater good above their own interests in order to provide for the men fighting and dying on the front lines. But Washington and the army remained fully loyal and obedient to the representatives of the people, bearing fully with each incompetency and complying with every futility. As soon as the war was resolved and independence won, Washington went before Congress to resign his commission in a final act of faith in the republican system. There were so many issues facing the newly independent country when Washington stepped down, including the potential that his own soldiers would never be paid; instead of seizing power himself and creating the ideal America that he envisioned, he left the fate of the nation to the whims of Congress with the knowledge that the union could collapse. But unlike Cromwell, he and his fellow officers knew that an unwavering faith in civil constitutional authority and the rule of law demanded that he take this chance. His selfless affirmation of civil power over military power would become a defining moment in the formation of the republic, exemplifying the unbending American reverence for the means of change as equal to the ends of change.

Then there was the Constitution of the United States: a document conceived imperfectly, but in time, perceived as the closest possible form of perfection. “But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all,” Washington declared in his Farewell Address of September 1796. Only eight years after its ratification, the Constitution was beginning to attain an extraordinary reverence in the minds of its citizens usually reserved for only the highest religious scripture. This unprecedented acclamation and accompanying dedication to the rule of law preserved the American Republic through the successive crises that it endured, including the Civil War a century later. More than 226 years after its ratification, the Constitution remains the oldest such document in the world still governing uninterrupted, the most significant vindication of the American Revolutionary project. No matter how much temptation has called for an outright violation of the Constitution in order to achieve the ends of necessary change, Americans have realized that the means set forth in the Constitution that protect the rights of all, including minorities and individuals, are absolute and inviolable no matter how grave the circumstances or how alluring the temptation.

The American Revolution initiated a wave of revolutions that produced mixed results. In the same year that the Constitution was ratified, 1789, the French people were inspired in part by American success to wage their own revolution against monarchy. While the French people successfully dethroned their king, they fell prey to the same Machiavellian disease of the English revolutionaries of the previous century. At the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, the most ardent revolutionary patriots committed to the purest causes – liberty, equality, and fraternity – were driven to madness to see their revolution through at all costs. The most virtuous of men, Maximilien Robespierre, led his nation through a Reign of Terror, a nightmare produced by the logic that the ends always eclipse the means, which Robespierre justified as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Eviscerating any opponents to their agenda as enemies of liberty, the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution themselves became enemies of liberty. And just like the English before them, they completed a full-circle revolution by removing tyranny and becoming tyranny by way of the dangerous absolutism of the Machiavellian creed.

Not to be outdone by the Jacobite radicalism of the French, the Russian Bolsheviks committed themselves to the same Machiavellian radicalism seen in Cromwell’s Britain and Robespierre’s France. “We stand for organized terror,” Vladimir Lenin declared in an interview. “This should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.” He was unabashed in proclaiming the Machiavellian philosophy of the ends justifying the means and professing his admiration for its application by Jacobins during the Reign of Terror.[1] Despite his grandiose claims to create true equality, fairness, enfranchisement, and comity among all in society, Lenin’s revolution became the ultimate full-circle revolution worthy of being the model of George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm.

We return to our original question on the exceptionalism of the American Revolution: Why did it succeed where the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and countless others that have attempted noble ends failed? Why did Washington become sanctified where Cromwell, Robespierre, and Lenin have become damned? These are complex questions that deserve equally complex answers, considering the countless historical factors that resulted in a difference in outcomes. While none of these historical moments can ever be seamlessly compared in light of these limitations, one can venture to observe a particularly important feature distinguishing the American Revolution from its historical counterparts: a more or less strict dedication to upholding the means to the end (the independence of a republican federation) as equally important as the end in itself.

History leads us to conclude that the American Revolution, for all its shortcomings, half-baked solutions, and unresolved problems, was indeed “The Glorious Cause”; for its glory was in its immovable devotion to preserving the means above the ends, and, indeed, to realizing the means as the ends themselves.

[1] Hannah Arendt, among other influential political writers of our age, advanced the well-regarded historical idea that Machiavelli was the intellectual grandfather of a line of despotic revolutionaries, Robespierre and Lenin chief among them. FOR MORE, SEE Hannah Arendt’s The Portable Hannah Arendt. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 500-502.