We reveal ourselves not only by our treatment of each other but also by our response to revolutions in the world.

The great American historian Gordon Wood relates a statement by the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth in 1848: It was “America’s destiny,” Kossuth said, “to become the cornerstone of Liberty in the world. Should the Republic of America ever lose this consciousness of this destiny,” he continued, “that moment would be just as surely the beginning of America’s decline as the 19th of April 1775 was the beginning of the Republic of America.”

In his new and profound collection of essays, “The Idea of America”, Professor Wood documents our consistent support, political and moral, for republican revolutions that liberated peoples around the world from monarchy. Then came the Russian revolution, soon co-opted by the Bolsheviks, and we reacted against an alternative revolutionary narrative by supporting–especially during the Cold War–repressive, undemocratic, anti-republican nations and dictators.

The Cold War ended twenty years ago and the U.S. has yet to recapture its historic support for republican revolution. Much more could have been done during and after the Gorbachev years to encourage in Russia and Eastern Europe the ideals of the republic and the institutions they create. We are confused and ambivalent regarding the Arab Spring, as much as anything because we endorsed and supported repressive government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. In Latin America and Asia we seem more interested in nominally pro-American “stability” than in the aspirations of the people for freedom.

Those Americans opposed to our Cold War anti-democratic policies offered as an alternative support for human rights. Commendable as the inspiration for the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, as a central organizing principle human rights do not necessarily insure the ideals of the republic. While we cannot and should not dictate to others the form of government they should adopt, what Kossuth and other mid-19th century revolutionaries saw in America was a Constitution that framed republican government institutions and incorporated their highest aspirations in our Bill of Rights.

As a basis for conditioning America’s role in the world of the 21st century, “human rights” lacks the gravity and specificity of the republican ideal. By proclaiming those ideals, we place certain moral demands on ourselves. The thinkers of the 18th century at our founding, according to Professor Wood, “knew that republicanism required a special kind of people, a people who possessed virtue, who were willing to surrender their private interests for the sake of the whole.” This sense of a greater good, of ideals greater than greed and power, is what has inspired republican revolutionaries throughout the better hours of our history.

During those Cold War years, America established a global presence, both military and commercial, that resembled the empires of history. More than a century and a half ago, Kossuth knew that if we placed our interest in power ahead of our destiny as the cornerstone of republican liberty our decline would begin. It is now for us to decide who we are. Will we seek to perpetuate our power as a military and commercial empire, or will we recapture our destiny as the beacon of republican liberty and an ideal for all the people of the world still longing for that light.

6 Responses to “Revolution and the American Character”

  1. Carlos Deegan Says:

    I’m afraid this post was a bit too esoteric for many people who read this blog. For one thing you should differentiate between “Republican” and “republican” just as one should differentiate between “classical” and “contemporary” liberalism. Many readers do not understand that 1776 was just 15 years from the French Revolution and its excesses.
    I often re-post your blogs but this one appears to have been written by someone else.

  2. Gary Hart Says:

    Thank you for your comment and advice, Mr. Deegan. For better or worse, I never sign anything as my own that someone else has written. I’ve been a bit of an academic these past few years, even went back to school a few years back to finish a degree. So, if that shines through, my apologies. I had limited success in politics. But what success I did have is attributable to my insistence on talking up, not down, to people. If the few who take the time and trouble to read this blog are puzzled by the capital R and small r, my guess is that they will read a little more founding-era American history and remind themselves that all the Founders used the language, concepts, and ideals of the early Greek and Roman republics.

  3. Joseph Furtenbacher Says:

    Say, Mr. Hart, we both appear to have good hearts, but while you have name recognition and the financial wherewithal to support a dot com, I have knowledge unsurpassed by any other human being; any particular reason I’m always writing you, and you never write me back? My email’s no secret – fs910@ncf.ca. If you love America more than you love having your words read, I suggest you drop me a line; I really could care less about your wealth, as long as you’re putting it to good use. In fact, it’s my understanding that that’s one of the ways a rich man can get into heaven (and if so, imagine how much easier it would be to get into heaven-on-earth), and much more enjoyable than having a heart attack upon learning you’ve just won a lottery or inherited a fortune, after a lifetime of penurious sainthood. Just think how much happier Ebenezer Scrooge was after a visit from the spirits (though I can’t promise I’ll do it all in one night)…

    p.s. If I don’t hear back, I guess we’ll both know, huh?

  4. Gary Hart Says:

    It may interest you to know, Mr. Furtenbacher, that I pay nothing for this website for the simply reason that I do not have “financial wherewithal.” Having steadfastly refused to join the lobbying circus and menagerie, I am not a man of means. Meaning, I am still a democrat. Even so, I’m sure you understand that it is impossible to communicate one-on-one with everyone who might wish to do so–even someone who has “knowledge unsurpassed by any other human being.” This, of course, places you in the panthion with Albert Einstein, and, had I the time, I can think of nothing more personally profitable than communicating with you. Sadly, I find myself in the situation, at the age of 74, of seeking employment. If, as my wife hopes, I find a job, I will then try to track you down to benefit from your immense wisdom. I have no doubt I will be the better for it.

  5. Joseph Furtenbacher Says:

    My humble apologies; I’ve been called a rich man myself… I truly am sorry, and impressed with your honesty. For my part, if you can admit that there may be someone who happens to be the most intelligent person in the world (where intelligence is defined as the ability to manipulate an internal model, in pursuit of a goal), and he or she spent a year and a half (of around sixteen hours a day, seven days a week) writing up the results of his twenty years of top-down study of philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, history, law, politics, pedagogy, theology, architecture, computers, nutrition, and others to a lesser degree, and searching for anyone as good (knowledge/ethics-wise (I myself live on a disablity pension of twelve thousand a year up here in Canada, and, having no dependents but my cats, feeling rather rich)), let alone better, that most intelligent person in the world would probably know he or she was, no?

    For example, it seems to me that one of America’s main problems is that her people think that everything has to be new and improved, which leads to the throwing out of a lot of babies along with the bathwater. How, exactly, is a republic superior to a constitutional monarchy in terms of stewardship of natural resources, say? And as far as that goes, Greece, Italy, and the U.S. don’t seem to be doing half as well as countries like Great Britain, Australia and Canada, though personally, I would put that down more to cooler temperatures than anything else… if you don’t save (for the winter, if nothing else) you don’t do quite as well as you do down south.

    p.s. Possibly more megalomania, but I know for a fact that my writing has put extra money in a lot of writer’s pockets; *do* you know of anyone who spent the last twenty years doing anything vaguely like what I’ve done? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but if no one has the time to examine the proof, the claims, even if true, are worthless.

    p.p.s. You still have your name recognition; *use it*, for the world as well as for yourself and your wife. And if there’s anything I can do (I do have some twenty thousand in credit left myself), let me know, even if it’s just to buzz off… 😉

  6. Forest Book Says:

    I read this piece; several times actually. Each time the word ‘anotonement’ came to mind. There was no getting past this, or other questions: “Does a republic/Republic ever seek atonement as part of its national character?” Or, “Should a nation seek redress for its actions of violence, injustice, and ineqaulity?”

    With multi-strategic militarism at the core of our national character; how can we not seek atonement? How can any living thing with consciousness and capacity for compassion not have penance as part of its life?

    Is that to human? Is that not what our nation is – human; one among everyone? Are we to believe the street brawl we are currently on the fringes of being inspired by the strength of our human character – Democracy? Or is it revenge? History is full of stories where vengeance drove pursuits of justice to remedy corruptions havoc.

    Are we currently seeking atonement or justice? Would atonement would bring to life next generation behaviour: From theaters of warfare or engagement, to theaters of engaged cooperation. From innovation to implementation. From hording to sharing. There are so many froms to to’s; It appears jobs should be plentiful.

    Atonement. Vengeance.

    Thank you for taking into account the education of our founding parents Mr. Hart. It is a very important dynamic in understanding the nature of reason giving pen to the idea of Democracy and its virtuous merits.

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