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Three revolutions
Posted by: McQ on Saturday, April 19, 2008

I'm interested in exploring an idea that we in the United States have been subject to not just one revolution, but at least three.

The first and obvious one is the revolution which established our independence from England. It was a revolution which rejected the concept of monarchy and big government. It embraced freedom. The revolutionaries broke with England through the Declaration of Independence which I have always seen as the soul of our country. The body - the bones and muscles - were to be found in the laws the Constitution laid down. The concept of very limited and non-intrusive government was also to be found in the Bill of Rights, which outlines constraints on the government, not the citizens. And central to the theme of government's place in this new society was the radical idea that government only existed by the consent of the people.

If we look at the history of the time following the revolution and the formation of the United States of America, it is obvious that for the most part, people were barely even aware of the government's presence. There was no taxation (tariffs and other fees funded government), very few laws and very little intrusion into the daily lives of the citizens of this country. In fact, rather than thinking of themselves as Americans, most thought of themselves as citizens of their states. A man was a Virginian or a Georgian, but he rarely identified himself as an American. States rights was both a major concept and a major issue. States and individuals fought any perceived intrusion on those rights, however minor. For the most part, government was represented by the law, post offices and the job of protecting the citizens from external enemies and not much else. Equality was its focus - equality under the law, equality of opportunity.

That perception of the role of government survived until the Civil War changed it forever. It is there the second revolution began, and interestingly that revolution was driven by government.

T.Harry Williams in his book, The History of American Wars: 1745 - 1918 points out that prior to that war the average citizen was barely conscious that the government in Washington existed.

"To preserve the Union the Northern people would submit to controls from the central government that prior to the war they would have considered abhorrent - if they had even conceived that such restraints could exist."

As mentioned, that's because few national laws applied to the ordinary citizen, he paid no taxes and he handled little national currency.
"American society, viewed as a whole, was loosely and locally organized; its institutions were characterized by an absence of mass and a lack of shape."
But with the Civil War, that changed - dramatically.
"The most important change caused by the war was a greater concentration of power in government. In both sections [North and South] it was realized this struggle would require more centralized direction than had been necessary in previous conflicts, nothing less than a mobilization of mass endeavor to attain a mass result, and the central governments almost immediately gathered large new posers unto themselves. The Northern government was more successful in this centralization than was the Southern, and some of the accretions of authority were retained even after the nation was reunited in 1865."
And this second revolution, this rise of a powerful central government, was diametrically opposed to the purpose of the first revolution. But it was accepted because it was felt to be a necessary evil in the face of a far larger evil - the dissolution of the union. Of course, for many people, such a dissolution was something which they believe was a part of the compact that was made in the first revolution - if government lost the consent of those it governed, free men had the right to dissolve it and form another, or, taken to the extreme, leave and form their own.

Obviously, however, that wasn't the sentiment that won out at that time, and the "big government" revolution took place while the attempt to hold the Union together was pursued.

Some of the changes this shift to a more powerful central government brought were in areas like finance. For the first time, to meet the large cost of the war, taxes were imposed and paper money was issued. Both were supposed to be temporary measures. As it ended up neither were and as Williams points out, "as an unforeseen result of the war, the country acquired a national revenue system and a national monetary system".

Most would consider the addition of those two systems to be a major change toward the growth of big government.

Perhaps, however, the most pernicious power exercised was that of forced conscription driven by the need to raise mass armies. Liberties never before questions were suborned to the will of the state. That's not to say everyone took it lying down - there were draft riots in New York and elsewhere, and certainly many cases of draft avoidance - but in the end, the central government had its way. That too was a power the government retained (and still retains) after the war had concluded.

The war also necessitated vast quantities of materials. Suddenly, the government became, by far, the largest consumer of weapons, shoes, uniforms and other items. It completely changed the way things were produced, speeding them up and sending us toward what we have come to know as mass production. And because it had to move both men and material quickly and efficiently, it provided an incentive to railroads to improve their operations and had a transformative effect in that regard. But, in terms of freedom and liberty, the bad far out weighed the good.

The federal government was now imbued with new powers and was becoming an intrusive everyday player in the lives of its citizens - something completely the opposite of the role the Founders imagined for it.

As you might imagine, the third revolution we've undergone was again driven by government and again gained its hold because of war. That would be the revolution which took the "big intrusive government" revolution a step further by introducing the truly revolutionary theme of the time, the "Guarantor State".

Of course the administration which introduced the concept was that of Franklin D Roosevelt, and the war that solidified it's hold was, of course, WWII.

As James Nuechterlein describes it in his article "Our New Deal Nation":
Indeed, in its wide-ranging program of relief, recovery, and reform, the New Deal wrought a revolution in the role of government. Among other things, it fed the hungry, provided welfare, employed those out of work, set minimum wages and maximum hours for workers, propped up farm prices, refinanced mortgages, bailed out financial institutions, guaranteed bank deposits, supported the arts, produced electricity for rural America, organized and mobilized tenant farmers, established Brigadoon-like utopian communities, built public projects large and small, engaged in massive regional planning, created public housing, and offered old-age security. It put new limits on the operations of the free market and established once and for all the sense of the federal government's responsibility for the health of the economy. It brought a collectivist sense and an emphasis on economic security to what had previously been a predominantly individualistic political culture.

In the process of doing all this, the New Deal also effected a revolution in politics. The Republican Party had, with brief interludes, dominated national politics since the Civil War, but the New Deal created a Democratic hegemony that lasted for decades. The impact of the Depression brought together under the canopy of the New Deal reform forces that had previously been divided on cultural and geographic lines: blacks and whites, farmers and workers, Catholics and Protestants, Southern poor whites and Northern ethnics. That new unity was most visibly represented in the rise of labor in general and the CIO in particular, a development that, however uneasily in some cases, covered over old antipathies with a nascent class consciousness, a sensibility spurred by the New Deal's active support for union organizing and collective bargaining. By the end of the '30s, so the consensus view argues, the previously unchallenged dominance of big business over the nation's political economy had been checked by a new broker-state politics, with an energized big government exercising countervailing power both in its own right and also in conjunction with big labor and big agriculture.
What all of that essentially did was allow a level of intrusiveness and control at the individual level never before experienced by citizens of the United States. Again, it stood the tenets under which the Founders based the government on their head. And without argument, it became clear that individual liberties and freedom were again being sacrificed on the alter of revolutionary politics claiming that a large and intrusive government is the best way to deal with the problems of society.

We evolved from a very individualistic and freedom loving people with the first revolution to a much more collective and group oriented society which is willing to sacrifice liberty and freedom for the concept of fairness.

And that, of course, is where we are today and is a completely different blog post for another time. Obviously my post is a pretty broad overview and there are lots of details between the events which also helps push us toward the subsequent revolutions which have so changed the political landscape of our country since its inception.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

The first two events were civil wars more than they were revolutions. The last event which a reaction to the excesses and insecurity of industrialization and urbanization isn’t a revolution or a civil war. It was more of a transformation of government, like Jackson changed the nature of government, but on a much larger and pervasive scale.

They were three changes in government.
Written By: James Atticus Bowden
I’ll comment on the 2nd revolution mentioned.

Circumstances changed. Originally when the US was formed, its diversity was also defined by its geography or demographics. Basically people X lived predominantly in State X, people Y lived in State Y, and people Z lived in State Z.

Fast forward 100+ years and you have somewhere between a partial and heavy blend in a given State. People X not only live in X but to a lesser degree they live in Y and Z as well. You also have the new State and Territories. They have a healthy blend of X, Y and Z. And for that matter you have immigrants from I, K, and J living everywhere. Fast forward to today and the blending of old cultures is almost untraceable.

No now you the country’s diversity spread across States and not limited within a State. You can see how people might have gained more interest in seeing a stronger national level authority since State no longer defined a specific cultural group but instead some historical geographic boundary.

If I had time at the moment I could go further extend this discussion into the later part of the third Revolution. The only way to protect ’diversity’ to the level that multiculturalists want, you have to further cede individual rights. The HRC of Canada are prime example. It trans-geographic Balkanization requires it to keep the harmony.

And it goes back to assimilation and American Immigration. If we closed the border to hostile nations and had been serious about enforcing citizenship and visas, would 9/11 happened? Would the Patriot Act have happened without 9/11? If we could restrict immigration of people from countries that are currently hostile and currently have sponsorship of terror acts against us, would we need the Patriot Act as much as we do now?

When I talk about assimilation I mean people recognizing and agreeing to the US system of justice and the US system of government. In the case of future citizens I also mean people looking to this country as their future home even though it may never come around to their culture or beliefs and then accepting that.

Instead we have people who come here for the money but despise everything else about the country. That should not be happening. But because it does, so we have to lose freedoms to keep the peace.
Written By: jpm100
URL: http://

Great post. I have believed for some time now that we will eventually become nothing more than an enormous flea market, with no official language and no sense of common bonds or beliefs. Why some people think this is the way to go is a mystery to me. If my time on this planet has shown me anything, it’s that you work best with those you have the most in common with. If I have very little in common with my neighbors, co-workers or anyone else for that matter, why exactly would I want to connect with them? What if I think their culture stinks? What if they think mine stinks? This is supposed to bring us together?
You are correct. We will have to lose some freedoms to keep the peace. Sad but true.
Written By: autot
URL: http://
I think this idea overestimates the speed of the process and ignores a number of factors. The Civil War and the New Deal were points at which the disease turned from chronic to acute, to use a medical metaphor. Just to throw down a list of some of the important things apparently overlooked:
Jefferson’s Embargo, the War of 1812 (remember the Hartford Convention)
the growth of the railroads before the Civil War and the role of government in helping them grow
the role of the territories before the Civil War, as the focus of expansion efforts on both sides (pro alavery and abolition)
the existence of the frontier throughout the 19th century, which allowed people to start over if they couldn’t succeed in their old home and gave space for people who felt too restricted by government in the more settled states. If you thought badly enough of the local government, you could go west and find a place where there was little or no government. When the frontier became too settled up, that opportunity closed forever.
the relative size of urban and rural areas in the 19th century—a society in which rural towns (and a society where everyone knew everyone else) had a much larger role, and in which cities (and a society where most people don’t know most of their neighbors) had a much smaller role, than in our own times
the Progressive movement of the late 19th/ early 20th century
I’m sure if I thought longoer I could come up with more
Written By: kishnevi
URL: http://
Here’s my goal...every thread is a thread about goes and this is easy...

I find it ironic, McQ, that you celebrate the actions of the militia in COncorde and Lexington but oppose the actions of the militia in Basra, Baghdad, and Ramadi. Isn’t palpably ironic that you, McQ, now support the "Red Coats" in ur aggressive war of choice aginst the Iraqi people.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Give it a rest, Joe.

Written By: Dale Franks
Feh, upon you and your wishes Dale...the irony that swirls around you in thick and sultry waves is almost long as ONE Iraqi can see an American, even with a telescope I can not rest.

Plus I note that on this sunny Saturday if yuor sour effusions were not here and my enlightened words not here, almost all these threads would have NOTHING in them...
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Actually, I find myself agreeing with you on most of this, McQ. I also think power shifted towards an intellectual-bureaucratic elite whose interest it was to expand governmental power to address social issues they found pressing (my blog for March 20, "Intellectuals and Ideology."
Written By: Scott Erb
Certainly the Revolution and the Civil War produced great changes in this country, and can be seen as revolutionary in nature, but the 3rd shift is not revolutionary, but evolutionary.

The growth of government power after the civil war is an evolutionary process of gradual success of the progressive movement. That success began before Teddy Roosevelt (public school systems) and continues today.

Pieces of it exist in both political parties, and the progressive agenda is pushed forward by both parties. When Republicans are in the ascendancy, we see increases in police powers. When Democrats are in the ascendancy, we see increases in regulatory powers. Both parties increase our international entanglements promoting an idea of national greatness through the power we project (. . . Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq).

Neither party makes any serious attempt to roll back the intrusions into liberty established by the other. Republican tax cuts only transfer the costs of government into the hidden tax of inflation. Democrat "restrictions" on police powers (like Miranda) are easily subverted, or discarded if inconvenient (tax courts, FISA)

Written By: newshutz
URL: http://
I suggest you’ve missed an important revolution: the one that took place between 1776 and 1787. The philosophical foundation laid by Jefferson in the Declaration is not reflected in the Constitution. The most crucial change was the virtual elimination of the concept of "consent of the governed." One could point to that as a necessary condition that gave legal foundation to the rest.
Written By: Ebony Bandera
URL: http://
I had an American History Professor who always called the civil War the second American Revolution, in fact he wrote a text book about it.

At any rate these things are cyclical. We are currently headed back into a period where the public will be more comfortable with bigger government. Then the elites will screw things up as they always do and the pendulum will swing back the other way.
Written By: kyleN
I don’t know if you’ve ever checked out Mencius Moldbug, but he writes at excessive length about this sort of thing at Unqualified Reservations. This might be a good starting point: Democracy as a historical phenomenon

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that there can be much disagreement on the basic thesis here. There is simply no comparison (in size, scope, powers, etc.) between the governments headed by Hoover and Truman. A legal discontinuity happened between them. You could say the same thing about the governments of Buchanan and Johnson.
Written By: Doug
URL: http://

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