America Really Is Revolutionary

Photo Credit: Getty

Several scholars I respect, including Daniel Hannan in his 2013 book Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, have argued that the American Revolution was more of an attempt to return to traditional English principles, than to create something new.

He has a point. John Locke’s influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is obvious. The Founders also drew on Magna Carta, the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the rationalism of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and the larger common law tradition.

Even so, this Burkean interpretation has always sat uneasily with me. I’ve struggled to articulate why, beyond a simple feeling that liberal revolutions—liberal in the original sense—are generally not conservative.

Clemson University historian C. Bradley Thompson puts a finger on it in his 2019 book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. Here is a passage from page 69, quoting from a June 5, 1824 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright:

Rather than searching into “musty records,” hunting up “royal parchments,” or investigating “the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry,” the Americans appealed to the great principles “of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.” The Revolution, according to Jefferson, presented the Americans with “an album on which we were free to write what we pleased.”

These are not the sentiments of someone who saw himself as defending tradition. Or, as the (English) comedian Michael Palin put it in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Listen. Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!