Was the American Revolution a Revolution? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (ERH) concludes it was a “half-revolution” rather than a total revolution on the scale of the Russian, French, Puritan, Reformation, and Papal revolutions.
Evaluating the revolutionary character of the American Revolution rests partly on the question of what “revolution” meant to the participants. ERH notes that there were two notions of revolution in play during the 18th century. In the “English” sense, revolution meant a preservation or restoration of an existing order of things: It “laid nine tenths of the weight on the maintenance of vested rights and one tenth on the necessary inconvenience of rebellion.” Yet, the American rebels also looked to France for practical help and for ideological support, and in the “French” sense, revolution already carried the connotation of the formation of a new governmental system.
The revolutionary character of American independence can also be gauged by the fortunes of the word “equality.” Originally, the Americans used the word as a term of “faith,” that is, in the hope that the colonies could be treated as equal to the mother country and the other peoples and nations of Europe. Yet, that word also contained an element of “hope,” and in the “non-Whiggist world of French friends of America, of free-thinkers, of negroes, the word ‘equality’ found an echo which resulted in changing the word itself.”
The “Jeffersonian Ordinance of 1784” displays both of these senses. The ordinance declares that the US has power to own territories, to continue the British colonial adventure to the West, to take full responsibility for her future. In all these specifics, it aims only at equality with Britain.
Yet, the document included a paragraph stating that “after the year 1800 of the Christian Era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States.” This was rejected at the time, a sign that “equality” had not yet made its transition from a term of faith to a term of hope. In 1787, the ordinance was re-framed for the territories of the then NW America, around Ohio, and in these areas slavery was forbidden.
Hence, at the end of the 18th century, “Equality in the body politic was granted to every colony. Equality of the individual was granted in the northern half only.” It was not until the Civil War that the balance of the word “equality” shifted to one of hope: By 1860, “Colonial equality weighed, so to speak, one fourth or one eight in the scale; the equality of the individual overbalanced it.” One might put it this way: The South stood for the “equality” of 1776, the equality of faith; the North for the equality granted the NW in 1787, the equality of hope.
ERH draws a more general conclusion from this, arguing that revolutions always begin from faith, and that hope develops later “It is only in a later stage of the revolution that Hope replaces Faith. When those who have uttered, stammered, cried out the new word I the dark of despair and revolution, when they have passed away, their grandchildren who have listened to it in the open day of revolution, try to write the next chapter.”
ERH also reflects on the central importance that Nature played in the ideas of the American revolution. The great principle, Governor Morris declared in 1779, was “men are by nature free.” The “axe felling trees” is the true philosophy of America, and “the revolution mobilized the inhabitants of thirteen British colonies against the wild Nature of a half-unknown area.” America is neither a state nor a nation, but an empire. But more importantly, American live within nature.
He takes up the question of whether one might consider the American revolution as a “precursor” to the French. In his study of revolutions, he discovers that most have a precursor, and that these precursor revolutions are failures. The seeds first scattered in a precursor revolution find soil somewhere else, unable to flourish in the original environment.
Precursor revolutions sometimes create historical ironies: “Louis XIV and James I both supported the precursor revolution abroad and by supporting them, became the unconscious instruments of the real and total revolution which went against themselves. The ways of Providence are inscrutable!”
ERH concludes that the American Revolution was a precursor, which was incapable of creating a new language that would have formed a total revolution in the autobiography of Western man. America, he argues, “must be interpreted as an unfulfilled promise, snuffed out between the two great forms of life and education which were created by England and France respectively.” America “lost one political language without finding another.”
It is a half-revolution, partly because it lacked the “full martyrdom at home” characteristic of total revolutions. Total revolutions achieve an “immortal soul” through this suffering and martyrdom, which America did not experience.