Revolutionary Theory

It is well known that Thomas Jefferson held fast throughout his life to the conviction that nations should experience a revolution every generation. While he was not averse to a violent revolution, if necessary, he preferred (as did all Enlightenment thinkers) that these revolutions be guided by reason and whatever changes came about, however radical, should come about slowly and peacefully. Late in his life he wrote a strange essay in which he developed his theory of continual revolutions that were, in his view, the only guarantee of individual liberty against the relentless encroachment of the power of the political state. The essay was called “The Earth Belongs To The Living,” and it spells out the conditions Jefferson, as an avid reader of history, perceived to be the conditions of despotism that always precede violent revolutions. The essay was read and commented on by Jefferson’s close friend James Madison but in general it has been dismissed by many historians as “the dream of a theorist” and not taken seriously.

One of the few historians to take the essay seriously — and to take Jefferson at his word about the need for continual revolutions — was Daniel Sisson, who, in his book The American Revolution of 1800, provides us with a careful, if overly favorable, study of Jefferson’s attitudes toward revolution and his commitment to the notion that his own election to the Presidency was itself a revolution in that it marked a radical change in the political life of America, which was tending toward Federalism and even the reestablishment of a monarchy — which is to say, the growing satisfaction on the part of the general population with an increase of central power. Jefferson saw his Presidency as an opportunity to return the nation to the people and place the sovereignty where it belonged, in the hands of the citizens, and lay to rest once and for all the desire that this nation should be governed by a monarch.

Sisson remarks at length about Jefferson’s “theoretical dream” and lists the conditions that Jefferson saw as precursors to every revolution:

Those conditions [Jefferson] enumerated at the end of his letter [to Madison] had been present in all despotisms throughout history and were particularly characteristic of the ancient regimes yet in power. Further, they could be summarized as those conditions that existed in America from 1760 to 1775: attempts by the government in power to maintain its authority were gradually undermined; laws became arbitrary; ‘obligations,’ once bearable, became ‘impositions’; traditional loyalties faded and new forms of attachment (outside the existing circle of government) became noticeable — the idea of community no longer held people’s attention to the interests of the nation; factions arose that exploited the frustrated classes in society; representatives no longer were representative, but spoke for the privileged few; accepted forms of wealth and income suddenly appeared corrupt or ‘ill-gained’; existing concepts of prestige changed; those people with talent, normally integrated into society, began to feel ‘left out.’ Indeed, this is the picture of an . . . emerging dialectic of two competing cultural systems warring against each other in the same society.

Santayana has told us that we need to read history or we will repeat its mistakes. Jefferson took that notion seriously and we should as well. The conditions Jefferson describes for us resemble in so many ways the conditions that persist in contemporary America. As Sisson points out, these are conditions that can lead to revolution or even to civil war. But there are mitigating factors at work in America today that may well prevent that from happening: schools that do not educate but simply train people to find mind-numbing jobs; news media that have degenerated to the level of mere entertainment, coupled with entertainment directed at a grammar-school mentality; electronic toys that mesmerize and lower I.Q.;  and wide-spread apathy brought on by complacency and ignorance. If Jefferson is right, then this translates into the loss of individual liberty — the very thing a republic was established to protect and preserve. But the majority of Americans seem unaware of this fact, or they just don’t care.

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6 thoughts on “Revolutionary Theory

  1. Love this! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change and how important it is to research. I used a theory for a paper, and that theorist said an artifact or issue must be studied during a disturbance; otherwise, there’s nothing to look at. I’ve seen this in a lot of the work in my field. But I also noticed that literature is the same way. It is all about conflict and resolution. Jefferson’s ideas fit into some of what I’ve been noticing.

  2. I’d like to add a third possibility to your last sentence’s conclusions. People might be unaware, don’t care, or as I’m seeing more frequently, have given up. Our politics, our leaders, really don’t give a damn anymore about the average citizen. Congressional polls have been down now for years, and it matters not a whit to them.

  3. Interesting post, Hugh. Seems to me lack of true concern is by far the biggest problem. Politicians don’t care about their low poll numbers? We could make them care, but, collectively speaking, we lack the courage and self respect to force the issue. Quite a depressing state of affairs.

  4. Ah Jeffersons presidency…a revolution for sure. If only all revolutions could be characterized as An Era of Good Feelings.

  5. Nice post Hugh. If you think about, our country has had a series of revolutions, some violent, some not. The Civil War hastened the end of slavery. Women’s suffrage gave women voting rights, FDR’s New Deal looked after those in need with investment, opportunity and support, the Civil Rights Act provided long overdue equal rights treatment under the law. We are poised to having another revolution and that will occur because Washington stopped paying attention and the huge and widening gap between the haves and have nots. We each need to remind our congresspeople and legislators how we feel. Great work, BTG

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