The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Is revolution indeed condoned by "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God"?

The United States, and in fact almost every country in the western hemisphere, was founded upon a revolution. But what is revolution, and what is its role in the history of ideas?

We generally think of revolutions as a specific kind of war, one of a certain group or territory trying to establish its independence. But we also use the word to refer to internal regime changes, as in the French Revolution, or even to dramatic economic and technological changes like the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, political autonomy achieved by a sort of historical drift, as with the Republic of Venice becoming effectively independent from the Byzantine Empire, are not usually called revolutions: they are, as it were, evolutions. It seems best to understand revolution as a dramatic change in human society taking place over a relatively short space of time; this covers much more than revolts and wars, but includes them and perhaps even gives them pride of place, since they seem to be the most common subtype of revolution.

There are a handful of common causes for revolution. The rarest cause seems to be technological advance. New inventions happen all the time, of course, but few are powerful enough to transfigure a society—the transitions from stone to bronze and from bronze to iron represent hundreds of thousands of years of human history, and the Iron Age only began about three thousand years ago. One of the most striking aspects of the last three centuries is that we have seen not one but two global revolutions of this kind (the industrial and the technological) in a space of time that constitutes far less than one percent of human history.

More frequently, revolutions are prompted by some kind of social strain: dynastic disputes, massive inequality and poverty, religious conflict, and tyrannical injustice are all familiar from the pages of history. The last two centuries BC in Roman history are sometimes called the Roman revolution, as they involved massive shifts in Roman laws on slavery, debt, welfare, and distribution of power among social classes, culminating in the early phase of the Empire. Across the Mediterranean, the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid dynasty represented a religious and cultural rebellion, insisting on the Jewish right to worship their God according to the Torah and maintain the Temple pure of pagan influence. The rise of social contract theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also brought about new revolutionary causes, rooted not only in practical concerns like oppression, but in political and philosophical ideals.

One of the most interesting historical examples of revolution is what we may loosely call the Revolution of the British Isles, which lasted over a century and redirected the histories of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Beginning in 1639 with a religiously-motivated war between the Scottish Covenanters, who espoused Calvinism, and the firmly Anglican government of King Charles I (who ruled all three countries), this revolution went on to embrace almost every other kind of and reason for a revolutionary war. English republicans under Oliver Cromwell executed the king as a tyrant and instituted a radically new system of government; the monarchy was restored in 1660, and then usurped by the Dutch prince William of Orange in 1688 on religious pretexts; legitimist Scottish forces launched two further rebellions against a new dynasty in 1715 and 1745. Small wonder that the American Colonies felt ripe for revolt only a generation later!

We hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The American Revolution is doubtless the one most of our readers are most familiar with; the Declaration of Independence became a model for colonial territories throughout the Americas, particularly those of the Spanish Empire. Simón Bolívar began leading campaigns for independence only twenty-five years after Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris; he remains a major cultural hero in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela to this day. The many slave revolts of the American South, though typically less successful, were inspired by similar principles, and sometimes by religious fervor as well; the Stono Rebellion of 1739 was a revolt of slaves taken from the African Catholic kingdom of Kongo, attempting to reach Spanish Florida where they had been promised freedom, and timed to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin.

But the French Revolution was, if anything, even more influential than the American on a world scale. It disrupted French society far more dramatically than its American cousin, leading to a wholesale slaughter of hundreds of aristocrats, a rigorous program of anti-Catholicism, and eventually to the Napoleonic Wars, which raged from Portugal to Russia and even affected the Americas.

Napoléon was decisively defeated in 1815, and Europe saw almost a century of comparative peace. But the ideas sparked by the French Revolution continued to grow and change, blossoming in trans-continental movements in favor of classical Liberalism and various forms of socialism and anarchism, all loosely descended from the moderate French Girondins and more radical Montagnards. Under the influence of Karl Marx and a number of other thinkers, this finally gave rise to the Russian Revolution and the formation of the modern Communist Party, which, through both its supporters and its opponents, drove most of the history of the twentieth century.

The Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 (which simultaneously gained popularity with socialist rhetoric and consigned actual socialists to concentration camps) was a rather unusual example of revolution. Unlike Mussolini or Franco, who took power in Italy and Spain through violent means, Hitler was able to occupy the German government primarily through lawful (if dishonest) processes. The fates of these three fascistic regimes were also divided. Germany and Italy were conquered from without in the Second World War; but in Spain, Franco’s political heir, King Juan Carlos I, revealed himself to be a secret proponent of democracy on taking power, transforming his own dictatorial position into that of a constitutional monarch and even helping quash a Francoist rebellion that would have restored him to his former position.

But perhaps the most interesting of all revolutions in the twentieth century were two that took place on opposite sides of the world: the Indian movement for home rule, or Swaraj, led by Mahatma Gandhi, and the American civil rights movement led principally by Rev. Martin Luther King. Both were dramatically successful, and both—though they had no problem challenging the conventions and comfort of British or American whites—were committed to nonviolent means. As with technology and economics, not all revolutions rest on force; appeals to the higher reality of justice are not always in vain.

Suggested reading:
The Second Book of the Maccabees
Plutarch, Life of Brutus
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws
El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, ed. David Bushnell
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto


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