Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Second American Revolution

Cross posted at Freedom Democrats

Every so often, I come across an activist claiming to be part of a "Second American Revolution". I generally find these assertions to reflect the ignorance of the person making the assertion -- after all, haven't we already had more than one revolution in this country?

Looking around the web, it seems that the term Second American Revolution is used to represent a few different historical conditions. First, there is the war of 1812, which might better identified as the "Second Revolutionary War": as John Adams wrote of the first revolutionary war, the revolution was not in the war itself (though others assert that the war was revolutionary), but was a change in the "principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people." With that perspective, I have to think that the revolution was not complete with our independence from Britain in 1783; instead, it only completed once our institutions had all been modified to recognize the fundamental equality of everyone in our society.

To some, this means that the American Revolution had two aspects, the first being anti-monarchism and independence, the second being a broader anti-elitism. This second aspect was never seen to conclusion, but was expressed in post-independence resistance to the new government such as Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.

Another way to parse this interpretation of the American Revolution is to identify the first revolution as embodying the ideal of fundamental equality among members of a society--in this case, "society" was defined as white males. This "first" American Revolution only reached its conclusion in the period of Jacksonian democracy, around the mid-nineteenth century. This was immediately followed by a strong push for the "second" American Revolution, which sought to expand our definition of "society" to include every person involved--specifically blacks and women. This revolution was only completed with the social and political reforms of the 1960's, and its gains are still being consolidated.

This is my favorite interpretation, though I realize attempts to delimit social evolution are far from objective. Still, I think this paradigm provides some context for thinking about contemporary changes in American society. Has America stagnated, such that we will have no more revolutions? Is there a "top-down" revolution being forced upon us by the ruling elite? If there is to be another populist revolution, will it be a "reactionary revolution", such that we are just going to put the government back in it's proper place, as it supposedly was in some mythical past? Or have we entered into a new, progressive revolution that builds upon the accomplishments and experiences from the previous revolutions?

I suppose only time will tell, but your thoughts are appreciated.

1 comment:

Ned Swing said...

Well, the funny thing about America is that people are brought up with stories of rebels defying their government and breaking the law and committing treason. The Declaration of Independence is radical, only in a bourgeois-parliamentary way, but it is still radical.