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Every Man His Own Revolution

1776 and American Egotism

If there is any period one would desire to be born in is it no the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era?

                                                          Emerson: The American Scholar

In this republican country somebody is always at the drowning point.

                                                          Hawthorne: The House Of The Seven Gables

The current attempt to sell the Bicentennial is obviously uninspired. Apart from Vietnam, Watergate, and the collapse of America’s “greatest city,” it has to be said that revolutions are mysterious, especially to Americans. Our revolution has for so long been a metaphor and even a commercial trademark that it is no wonder that the trademark gets more “exposure” than any genuine pride, hope and fear. But a better reason for our essential inattention to 1776 may be the overwhelming success of the Revolution in achieving specific political liberties. These are so habitually accepted by Americans as guarantees, even when they are violated, that one specifically “revolutionary” side of our lives passes without notice.

But of course the greatest historic effect of the Revolution has been to create and perpetuate our secular religion, the free individual. He has been the greatest blessing not only to free enterprise but to American literature, religion and art. Even where he exists as an abstraction in our corporate and mass society, he can be a menace to the public good, the res publica, the general welfare. In the name of this free individual hundreds of thousands of Americans live neglected and despised, they die unobserved, like leaves falling off a tree.

Revolutions last when they generate a pressure that causes a people to accept this pressure as the very force of history. The American Revolution has lasted. Its declared and fulfilled purpose was to make “our English liberties” operative by the colonists themselves. There was an immense association on the part of many New Englanders with the English Puritan Revolution of a little more than a century before. There was some hope—this was not to be fulfilled in New York and elsewhere until well into the 19th century—to abolish feudal land tenure and “aristocratic” privileges. But the essential political revolution succeeded so specifically here that one can see how little the revolution was meant to be a social one—whatever that could have meant in a loose confederation of colonies, some of which rested on indentured white labor if not yet on black slavery, some of which had been founded as individual fiefs. The most rebellious state, Massachusetts, was not altogether emancipated from its long submission to Puritan theocracy.

The American Revolution became a brilliant success first in the eyes of the world. It accomplished this not because it created secure national enthusiasm over here but because it gave unprecedented scope to political men, agitators, writers, who found themselves and virtually created themselves by identifying themselves with this first great revolution to have impact on intellectuals and incipient revolutionaries in many countries. Tom Paine, an Englishman formerly a stay maker and excise man, electrified English radicals as well as Washington’s troops when he wrote in Common Sense—“America is only a secondary object in the system of British politics … Her own interest leads her to suppress the growth of ours … Nothing but independence … can keep he peace of the continent, and preserve it inviolate from Civil War.” Blake said that Paine “had been able to overthrow all the armies of Europe with a small pamphlet.”

No wonder that revolutions are so long in the making before they actually burst out, officially, on a given day. The assumption of right usually takes the form not of total novelty, as with the student slogans of the 1960s, but of an appeal to “history” itself. A lasting revolution is always more assertive of the traditional rights it claims to establish that of the wrongs that may have set it in motion. Its moral claim is to direct the future after the “wrongs” have been eliminated.

So the American Revolution was won not just by drawn out war and the decisive support of France by through its propaganda, its historic eloquence, its mighty assertions of a new destiny opening up in the affairs of men. There was a feverish attempt, from the first agitation against Parliament and King, to confirm every political protest and stratagem as a form of popular literature. One reason for revolution is always to give words to what Emerson called the Party of Hope. The Party of “Memory,” as he called the opposition, tends to live by immense reservations.

The American Revolution released a mighty mass voice—in local assemblies, in churches, in the Continental Congress. There was a tidal movement of adversary sermons, pamphlets, legal papers, surprisingly insurrectionary public complaints and speeches. Revolution equals energy. Energy communicating itself to an excited public, as is natural to revolutions, becomes synonymous with popular speech, the news slogans, the positive ritual of inflammatory oratory.

Feudal England, which in so many concrete social relationships has survived in the English Welfare State of 1976, was the infamy directly attacked by so many angry restive Americans in 1776. Feudal England was charged with limiting natural spontaneous expressiveness over here. The English past, as Hawthorne showed its infliction on so many of his characters, was secretive, haunted, repressive.

No wonder that Hawthorne possessed supremely what Eliot was to call his “ghost sense!” In “romance,” “twice-told tales,” “mosses from an old manse,” Hawthorne described what New England might have remained without the liberating political charge of revolution. His key subject was a Massachusetts still psychologically imprisoned by theocracy long after the legal domination of the Puritan clergy had vanished, a culture held in a vise by the obsession with depravity and by the guilt somehow synonymous with ancestry. Hawthorne’s Puritans are spectre-thin, obsessive, engulfed to the point of lunacy in a loneliness and silence from which only some historic cataclysm can release them.

The emancipation of Massachusetts, as Brooks Adams was to call it, was not to occur without the Revolution. The Puritan clergy may have helped to bring the Revolution about in their opposition to every effort from England to establish the Anglican Church in Massachusetts. But as Adams showed, the Revolution was to undo the Puritans precisely because their opposition to the Church of England was to develop into a growing skepticism and religious factionalism in the new republic.

Hawthorne, though he was to oppose every morsel of expansionism that followed from the aggressive energies released by the Revolution, nevertheless understood too well why English Tories distrusted the Revolution: it was a seedbed of native talent. Gibbon, who regularly fell asleep in the House of Commons during the great debates of the Revolution, said that History is “little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Dr. Johnson, who in 1775 attacked the colonists in a pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny, had said in 1769 to Boswell—“Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.”

But the Revolution became a hero cult even for such political pessimists as Hawthorne and such believers in “natural” depravity as Melville. The astonishing group of political thinkers—Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Adams, Madison, Jay, the already world-famous Franklin—who began with consciously provincial arguments in behalf of “British America”, went on to devise world-shaking briefs for independence and constitutional government that proved the significant American belief that they possessed great men. Just as Dr. Johnson’s attacks on Milton make him seem like the first great American poet, so for Hawthorne, as for John Adams earlier, the Founding Fathers were links in a chain of English Protestant genius—the genius for “independency” of spirit and mind that went back tot heroes of the Puritan Revolution and the Commonwealth.

Here is where the significant mythology of the Revolution begins: the cult of bold originality, “representative” of the human race as its best, whose gifts would have been shunted by continued English rule. Hawthorne, in his greatest story about the Revolution, My Kinsman Major Molineux, tenderly made fun of the young rustic who comes to Boston only to see his uncle, the once almighty British officer, tarred and feathered by a jeering crowd having a revel. At the end of the story young Robin is to become a true American: he must find his destiny in himself.

All American writers since, many famous American “personalities” in business and government, have though of themselves as self-starters, not part of a tradition except one that carries their names. The American as “pioneer” in every possible walk of life, finally self-sustaining as well as self-starting, was to become one oddity of a Revolution justifying itself by English tradition. Melville was to demonstrate the tragedy of Captain Ahab, but not before he virtually deified the common American sailor as wanderer, wale-killer, forager on the high seas. Emerson rhapsodically saluted the independent American scholar as a genius by definition; even the seminarians in Harvard Divinity School became “new-born bards of the Holy Ghost.”

Immense powers were released by the American Revolution—immense stores of unconscious personal militancy, affirmation, scientific curiosity, esthetic boldness and antinomian “heresy” broke open among all classes of men. The American Revolution raised the individual and above all the theory of individualism to new heights. There was a political revolution, even a religious revolution, above all an intellectual and literary revolution. There was eventually a revolution of the common man, thanks to the “great Democratic God,” as Melville put it in Moby Dick, who picked up “Andrew Jackson from the pebbles.” But the ambiguous and marked hysteria of Melville’s tribute to Jackson, as to “meanest mariners and renegades and castaways” stems from the unlimited and even frightening assertiveness of ruthless Americans like Andrew Jackson and Ahab. Especially when these overreachers are compared with worldly failures like Hermann and Melville, soon to slip into the American shadows.

Democracy, in America the religion of personal equality even more than the belief in popular representation, was a magnificent idea to emerge in the new, the Western world. Even conservative Tocqueville wrote that America seemed to the Old World to have been held in waiting for humanity. It was right for the first great political revolution to emerge in this “new” world. But if revolutions are usually indestructible from the outside, they are also mysteriously self-destructive. As Hannah Arendt said, they resemble the long sought treasure that disappears when we get access to it.

Every man more or less, and some men certainly more than others, became in theory, in some model carried around in Americans’ heads, his own revolution. But how was “individualism” transformed, very early in the Republic, from “our British liberties” and “the rights of man” to what Emerson confidently described as the “infinitude of the private mind.”

Infinitude? What was the connection between the political independence of colonists and the amazing myth that the individual person may be considered infinite, measureless, God-like in ruthless power, and so become a god over all those who happen to be non-gods? What, to go on with American history as we have lived it for two century of capitalist expansion, is the connection between the individual pursuit of happiness and the common good? Between dominion, narcissism, introversion, life ridiculously and meanly lived for oneself, and the overwhelming amount of racism, poverty, neglect, indifference and degradation to be witnessed in the streets of America? What is liberty when it is identified wholly with the ego? What is democracy if it is practiced wholly for my sake? Why is American life so violently personalized, as if for the media, when the idea of the person is tenuous and the person feels more and more vulnerable? Unlimited “self”-expression is increasing our sense of personal nullity.

The civil religion of Americans, Tocqueville said, was not liberty so much as it was equality. And “equality” in America insists that I am as good as you but not necessarily the reverse. Dr. Johnson said contemptuously of the “rebels” in America—“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” An amazing amount of contradiction still haunts the self-proclaimed belief in liberty as an American creation and an American gift. Whitman, a truly great and original poet, ridiculously believed that one poet alone could confer sacredness on an overwhelmingly secular American ethos. “The priests depart, the divine literatus comes.” This was typical of the often phony public role that the American writer was to play in a culture that would also absorb him as entertainment. By taking himself as oracle in every sphere, Whitman was helping to perpetuate the notion, so dear especially to ‘radical” protesters from Emerson to Mailer, that talent is equal to moral and political wisdom. All this has ever meant is that the gifted individual feels supreme in his sacred ego, for art is a necessary mystery to the public.

We have had, in money-making and government, the John D. Rockefeller who said “God gave me my money,” the Woodrow Wilson who was overheard at Versailles to say: “If I didn’t feel that I was the personal instrument of God, I couldn’t carry on,” the Kennedys and Johnsons and Nixons and Kissingers who all spoke of “their” determination in pursuing foolish wars as a test of their personal “manhood.” There is a direct line, at least to my mind, between the romantic and bourgeois emancipation of the self that in America proclaimed Nature “was meant to serve” and the despoliation and corruption of Nature. There is a direct line between the prevailing rhetoric of a triumphant individualism, and the millions submissive to the impersonal power exerted by corporations, manufactured mass opinion, a cash nexus that has never been so inextricable from even our most innocent pleasures.

The problem we face in assessing the American Revolution is just that is may have been exceptional. The President praises the Revolution with a sincerity that is totally irrelevant. The columnist William Safire, who served Agnew and Nixon, writes that “The public policy the US should be to export ideas about what is right and wrong to the rest of the world … We do have a mission to sell our ideals of freedom and virtue in the far corners of the earth … Our Founding Fathers rebelled against tyranny ‘not just for ourselves but for all mankind’—a fairly pretentious notion, unmatched in the world until the onset of Communism.” These pronouncements follow from a defense of the Lockheed Corporation or spending at least 30 million since 1970 in bribes to foreign politicians. On the other side of the political spectrum, Lynette Fromme and Sandra Good of the Manson family threaten us with this—“If Nixon’s reality wearing a new face (Ford) continues to run this country against the law, your homes will be bloodier than the Tate-La Bianca household and My Lai put together.”

The hysteria evident right and left stems from the seeming inaccessibility of new ideas, from the general acceptance of the American Revolution as sufficient to any and all societies—and to our own crisis just now. The “selling” of the Bicentennial by dumb politicians and inflated media performers is in ironic contrast to obstinate hopes of Soviet dissidents. Andrei Amalrik, a year before his threatened expulsion from his homeland, wrote pleadingly to Americans: “Genuine stability comes only in a process of movement, only in the expansion of influence. The US must strive for a transformation of the world if it wants to be more stable … If the US can become the center of a new expansion, a humanitarian expansion based on human rights throughout the world, its future would be assured for a long time.”

A German magazine, trying to say something comfy about America at 200, ended with a bit of Schadenfreude:

The land that brought us blue jeans, the computer, “Bonanza,” jazz and drive-in churches, —samples of the famed American way of life—now delivers only bad news: a murder rate that doubled within a few years, cities that are dying financially; secret services that plot to kill foreign chiefs of state and companies that would not shy of trying to bribe the Pope if that could increase sales ...

The American era is past. It lasted only thirty years—born during the days of German capitulation in the year 1945, it died on April 29, 1975, at 7:52 a.m. when the last GI jumped into an evacuation helicopter on the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon.

That is the current opinion even among many Americans. Which is why we do seem inert and even the coming election is unreal except to some—not even all—of the candidates themselves. Yet there is not another country in the world where the lack of political hope seems so unnatural, so odd, so positively immoral, as it does to us.

The problem has been with us from the beginning, but now seems particularly menacing. When “freedom” by itself does not assure the social good, freedom itself tends to get distrusted at home as much as it is menaced from abroad. Just now in America every citizen is emphatically not his or her won revolution. Now that “free enterprise” seems as much of a public lie as ‘the infinitude of the private mind,” it would be interesting to find out what, except for its still vigorous connection with the pleasure principle, the historic idea of the free individual means to millions of Americans dependent on those super-organized units that dominate industry, education, entertainment, publishing. The disaffection with freedom in America is furtive, ashamed and confused. So that any other revolution, as is the way of the 20th century, is likely to be authoritarian. But with us there is no other revolution on the horizon. The 18th century one is still our privilege and our greatest success.

This article originally appeared in the July 3 & 10, 1976 issue of magazine.