Let's recapture America's revolutionary mission

JULY 4, 1986, marks the 210th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. The fathers of the declaration were among the most politically distinguished, economically well-to-do, and socially prominent community leaders in the Colonies. Nonetheless, they did not see their task as merely that of bringing about political reform or evolutionary change. With great zeal and with little hesitation they draped their efforts with a radical tag: revolution. Many modern-day radicals instinctively scoff at this revolutionary claim. These radicals, mostly in the left, but also on the right, will concede that America's uprising was a war of national liberation. For a revolution, however, they will point to the French example (with the guillotining of Louis XVI, the redoing of the calendar, and the imposition of a reign of terror), or the Bolshevik prototype (founded on state endorsement of atheism and the institution of a dictatorship in the alleged name of the proletariat). This fashionable contemporary denial of America's revolutionary origins, seemingly confirmed by America's present-day willingness to be cast in the role of the prime guardian of the status quo, is seriously detrimental to the American quest for world leadership. The truth of the matter is that America's nature and outlook were, and continue to be, revolutionary.

What was so sudden and far-reaching in the American struggle for independence, one may ask, to rightfully endow this nation with the mantle of revolution? With the passage of more than two centuries, it is not surprising that we have lost track of the true significance of the American Revolution.

The American Revolution comprehensively denied the political wisdom of the time and replaced the old principles with new ones. The American Revolution denied the right of empire; denied that kings and princes had a divine right to lord over the people; and denied that government is the primary source and guardian of the people's rights. Instead, the American Revolution articulated, for this country and the world, the following new and radical principles: the recognition of the innate or ``natural'' right of the people to ``Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness''; the realization that undue governmental intervention might hinder the full realization of these rights by the people; and the recognition of the people's right to change their government.

So radical and dramatically contrary to the then existing notions of government and politics were these premises of the American independence that many of the contemporaneous emperors and monarchs of the world saw in the American uprising, and in its doctrinal underpinnings, a threatening message.

When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, some 14 years after America's, the concepts and words of the American Declaration of Independence clearly echoed in the streets of Paris and in the documents flowing forth from France's General Assembly. The American experience was pointed to as a model, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were lionized as revolutionary god-parents. In the 1820s, nearly half a century after the United States rebellion, when the nations of Latin America fought against Spanish rule and successfully attained their independence, such heroic liberators as Sim'on Bol'ivar, Jos'e de Sucre, Jos'e Mart'i, and Miguel Hidalgo viewed themselves as successors to the leaders of the American Revolution.

America not only provided the Latin American struggle with moral encouragement and with arms, it also articulated, in the Monroe Doctrine (1823), a national policy against foreign and imperial rule and interference on this continent. In the late 19th century, the US pressed for greater tolerance for minorities in czarist Russia and in Ottoman Turkey. In 1918, President Wilson's Fourteen Points for a just peace, to conclude World War I, emphasized self-determination for the people of Europe. It is in great part due to American insistence that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled and the Russian Empire drastically curtailed after the war, giving rise to new, national regimes in Europe.

Yet despite this early commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, America as a nation slowly seemed to be losing both some of the convictions and the rhetoric of its revolutionary mission. Two factors, in particular, were involved:

The tarnish on this country's revolutionary glow was due in part to the growing involvement of America's business in economic development, and at times exploitation, overseas.

Moreover, the advancement of Marxist ideology seemed to undercut the legitimacy of America's revolutionary origins. It was Karl Marx, and Lenin and Stalin after him, who claimed the ownership of ``the true revolution.'' The Bolshevik Revolution was indeed a drastic and a frightening experience. Resorting to the tactics of the reign of terror utilized in post-revolutionary France, the Soviets starved scores of millions, executed millions, and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of real, suspected, or potential counterrevolutionaries.

But instead of branding Lenin and Stalin as false messiahs and the Soviet revolution as a false dogma, the US relinquished the revolutionary arena to these pseudo-revolutionaries.

In this beginning of the third century after the American Revolution it is also incumbent upon us, therefore, to take stock of our ideological arsenal. The time has come to reassert our revolutionary commitment. Our position and goal have not changed from those articulated in the Declaration of Independence. We believe in the rights of people to self-determination. We believe in private property and in free enterprise. We believe that enlightened self-interest and political as well as economic competition are essential ingredients for bringing change and progress. We believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be dictated or granted from above, but must be constantly nourished by those seeking their benefits.

As we now observe other people and nations in the midst of their search for life, liberty, and happiness, we need not be overly alarmed by the fear and possibility of disorder and strife connected with this pursuit. Not all of our accomplishments as a nation were achieved through lawful or peaceful means. The abolition of slavery required the martyrdom of John Brown as well as a civil war. The voting franchise for women followed bitter political campaigns and imprisonment for suffragist leaders. The rights of labor were not attained without a bloody struggle, and even the most recent civil rights accomplishments were, at least in part, the product of mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, and violent confrontations.

Within the last year, we have once more seen the US step forward behind its revolutionary commitment. We acted nationally in support of change in both Haiti and the Philippines. We must proceed with this same high mission, however cautiously, and point an accusing finger against authoritarian or totalitarian oppression wherever it is found. We need equally to render moral and material assistance to those fighting tyranny -- whether political, economic, or social, whether on the left or the right. Ours is the just revolution. America's revolutionary flag must be flown above those of the revolutionary deceivers. We must not again be timid, nor let others divert or lessen our commitment to a positive revolution in the life, rights, and government of mankind worldwide.

Nicholas N. Kittrie, Edwin A. Mooers scholar and professor of law at the American University, wrote ``The Tree of Liberty: Rebellions and Political Crime in America.''

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